Last Friday was a colleague’s last day in our office so his friends (me included) decided to treat him for lunch. We went to Greenbelt as it was close to our office and we decided on Banana Leaf Asian Cafe. I have heard good things about it so I took the occasion as a chance to try it for my self. Our group was, I think, the first of their lunch clients to arrive because the place was deserted. The interiors were warmly lit, decorated with modern Asian motifs. As we sat down, we were promptly handed menus for our perusal.
Our waiter was polite enough, adequately answered our questions regarding the menu, and confidently suggested other things when we had to customize our orders due to food allergies of some of our colleagues. Speaking of the menu, I realized it was a combination of popular and familiar dishes from Asian countries like Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, and India. Familiar, especially to me, having lived and travelled across the region for a while.
For variety we ordered Thai Pomelo Salad and Pad Thai (with chicken instead of shrimp), Malayan Beef Rendang, Thai Green Curry Chicken with Eggplant & Basil, Penang Salted Fish Fried Rice, and Thai Style Grilled Whole Squid. From the majority of Thai dishes one can gauge the popularity and familiarity of Filipinos with Thai cuisine. I dared not order anything Indian because some of them had previously expressed their dislike for Indian food.
Having tried and tasted these foods ‘at the source’–so to speak, I can say that the dishes served us were generally of good quality, especially when it came to the freshness of the ingredients. The presentations were elegantly unobtrusive, letting the food take center stage. The use of banana leaves as plates is refreshing and familiar at the same time, reminding me of past meals in my home provinces of Bulacan and Pampanga, reflecting the few similarities of Filipino cuisine and dining to that of our Asian neighbors.
Of all the dishes that we ordered, the Pomelo Salad was the one I liked and enjoyed most. I remember my Cambodian housekeeper would whip this up whenever pomelo was in season and she would add a combination of squid, shrimp, pork belly or chicken. Unknown to many, Cambodian cuisine intersects with the cuisine of its neighbors: from Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Burma, even India. This dish, while Thai in style, captured the flavor of the salad that my housekeeper used to make for me when I was living in Phnom Penh.
My enjoyment of the Penang Salted Fish Fried Rice was hampered by the excess of ingredients. If you replaced the salted fish with Chinese sausage, it could have easily passed for a Yang Chow Fried Rice. The salted fish fried rice I knew and loved was simpler: the salted fish were diced more finely and there were less eggs, carrots, and peas–but more of garlic and scallions.
When the Malayan Beef Rendang was brought to our table, I noted that it looked very good. It even had a few strings young coconut on top, which reminded me of past Beef Rendangs, enjoyed in Malaysia. However, when I gave it a stir, I was disappointed to notice that it was quite dry. I am used to Beef Rendang that’s a bit saucier, when the coconut milk has simmered long enough to render some of its oil, which adds a new layer of flavor to the dish. Fortunately, this dish was redeemed by the tenderness of the beef chunks.
The task of taking photos of the rest of the dishes that we ordered got lost in our conversation so I will give them justice purely through these words. The Pad Thai tasted as it should–minus the spice, which majority of my colleagues didn’t like. The noodles were perfectly cooked, my only quibble are that they could have used more sprouts and the fish cakes to be fried to a crisp before adding it to the dish. The Green Curry Chicken was unremarkable. I mean it wasn’t awful but it wasn’t that great either. The Grilled Squid was fresh and grilled perfectly, but I noticed none of my colleagues touched its dipping sauce which, made of crushed ginger, lemongrass and other stuff, was the ‘Thai’ part of the dish. Without the dipping sauce, the dish was just like the grilled squid one can order in other places–even at home.
By the time we ended our meal, the place had filled up with the lunch crowd. It made us think that we were somehow responsible for this but I knew that this was a restaurant people will have no trouble coming back to. Personally, my curiosity is piqued. I would like to try their other dishes in the future. The wide range of selections, the generally good quality of the food, and the pleasant and efficient service, plus the not-so-expensive pricing make dining at Banana Leaf a satisfactory experience.