Mulling over the menu at Banana Leaf, I’m trying to choose a seafood dish. It isn’t easy, given the more than two dozen options that make up part of an almost encyclopedic pan-Asian offering.
I’ve done my homework, so I know that owner/chef John Lai is from Hong Kong, and that he considers Cantonese cuisine his specialty. Shrimp and scallops with XO sauce, then, would be a natural choice.
Then again, I’m intrigued by “Royal Thai style fried grouper.” It’s listed among the house specialties, and I recall that Lai’s 30-year career has spanned the globe from Asia to the Bahamas. I decide to ask our waiter for suggestions.
His response doesn’t exactly narrow my options, but it does solve my dilemma. “We also have live lobster,” he says. “One-and-a-quarter pound, not on the menu. We cook it with ginger and scallion. Or Hong Kong style, fried with chile peppers.”
All right, then. Hong Kong style lobster it is. And what a stunning dish it turns out to be. Broken down into manageable pieces and deep-fried in the shell in a light, translucent batter, the lobster arrives in a “dry” stir-fry of chiles, scallions and – surprise! – raisins, piled on an oval platter with head at one end and tail at the other. Served with a lobster shell cracker and forks for teasing out the sweet meat, it’s as much a treat for the palate as it is for the eyes.
Chef Lai’s Peking duck is, if anything, even more impressive. Granted, it’s an abridged version, minus the soup course and with no tableside carving. But the first course – a platter bearing the legs, wings and glistening mahogany shards of crispy skin from a whole duck, along with scallions, julienne cucumbers, hoisin sauce and steamed buns for assembling your own wraps – is as expertly rendered as you’re likely to find this side of New York’s Chinatown. The stir-fry that follows, pairing the remainder of the duck meat with bamboo shoots, scallions and julienne red and green bell peppers, is likewise exemplary.
Not every presentation is as jaw-dropping as the lobster or Peking duck, but the quality remains high even for the most rustic dishes. Give your entree-size bowl of Szechwan-style beef noodle soup a stir, and you’ll turn up a buried treasure of emerald-green baby bok choy among the tangle of noodles, toasted chiles and fat-beribboned chunks of beef.
Having sampled across as much of Banana Leaf’s extensive menu as I could over the course of four meals (so far), I have yet to come across a dud. Winning starters have covered the spectrum from pork and dry black mushroom spring rolls to Thai style calamari to Malaysian coconut soup for two: shrimp and bright vegetables swimming in an ethereally light coconut broth, served in a coconut shell.
Go easy on the starters, though, because you may find yourself ordering one or two more entrees than are strictly necessary. How do you resist a classic Chinese red-roasted pork, say, or a soul-satisfying plate of dry beef chow fun? Or shrimp and scallops in XO sauce, a dish that turns out to be every bit as special as its name?
On cool nights, you’ll probably be tempted by one of the casseroles. Go ahead, give in. If not the Szechwan beef noodle soup, maybe eggplant and chicken with garlic sauce. Or if you’re feeling adventurous, sliced pork belly with preserved vegetable.
And you must – absolutely must – ask your server what off-menu Chinese vegetables are available. Order one, whether it’s stir-fried pea shoots, sugar snaps in garlic sauce, or Chinese broccoli. You won’t regret it.
John Lai opened Banana Leaf last October in Cary’s Village Square Shopping Center, giving the former Bombay Beijing space a colorful makeover with a miniature jungle of potted plants and large paintings of tropical flowers on banana yellow walls. A woven bamboo partition panel frames the bar area, which will eventually serve beer and wine pending alcohol permits.
Judging by the crowd that filled the ample split-level room on a recent Saturday night, it’s clear that word has quickly spread. Weekend reservations are a good idea.
While you’re at it, you may want to make sure they set aside one of those Peking ducks.