You can’t say that Bay Leaf Indian Cuisine doesn’t warn you.
No, there are no signs on the walls alerting diners that much of Indian food is robustly seasoned. It would be a waste of ink. If the aroma of spice — perhaps curry or chili, but we’re not sure — that greets you at the door doesn’t send the message, nothing would.
Those familiar with Indian cooking are now saying to themselves, “Duh.” But, this cuisine is not nearly as ubiquitous in America as is other Asian fare. There are a lot of folks who have no idea how the second-most populous nation on Earth eats.
A visit to Bay Leaf shows this food to be highly aromatic and often quite vividly flavorful. This is not to say that everything at Bay Leaf is five-alarm hot. There are plenty of dishes that are mild and subtle in their flavorings.
It is never a bad idea to ask the staff when unsure about unfamiliar cuisine, and our experiences at Bay Leaf are that the pleasant, somewhat formal waiters are good about steering customers in the right direction.
An evening visit to Bay Leaf showed some of the variety in Indian seasoning.
We started with the assorted appetizers ($12.95), which, as the name indicates, serves as a sampler plate. Almost everything on this platter was fried in some way, and had a pleasing texture and — except for the fish pakoda — a flavor that worked well for us. Among the items are Samosa (fried, triangular pies stuffed with seasoned potatoes and peas), Aloo Tikki (spiced potato patties), and Vegetable Pakoda (deep-fried fritters).
The Shrimp Bhuna ($19.95) is, as the menu advises, several jumbo shrimp sautéed in a “robust spice mix” along with onions, bell pepper and tomatoes. It arrives at the table in a stew pot, with rice served on the side, and it doesn’t take any time at all to wake up the taste buds.
Given South Louisiana’s embrace of peppery seafood dishes, this ought to be one of the more popular items on the menu. It is bold, and we liked it a lot, but those sensitive to hot spices will be glad that the wait staff is diligent about keeping the water and iced tea glasses replenished.
Near the other end of the seasoning spectrum is the Chicken Malai Kabob ($16.95), which comes from the tandoor section of the menu.
Tandoor cooking involves using a clay pot heated with wood charcoal, with the meats marinated in yogurt and spices.
In this case, the dominant spices are ginger, garlic and coriander. It was ginger — not one of the more commonly used spices for meat in American cooking — that we noticed the most, and we enjoyed it. The tandoor dishes are served on hot skillets.
Bay Leaf offers a lunch buffet ($10.50 on weekdays, $14.50 on weekends) and it provides a lot of opportunities to test a variety of dishes and discover what types of items one likes best. Among what we sampled:
- Lamb Masala is a popular Indian lamb stew typically made from a variety of seasonings, including chiles, that really heat up the tongue from the first mouthful.
As with other spicy dishes, this casts a long shadow over the rest of the meal, muting the taste of everything that follows it.
- Beans Poriyal is a less spicy dish in which green beans are the main ingredient. The dish usually features grated coconut, mustard, chili powder and curry. This mild dish served as an effective side dish to the Lamb Masala because it allowed the palate to recuperate from the spices.
- Another interesting entrée is Chana Dal, a common Indian legume with a bright yellow color that, at first glance, looks like grains of corn. The dish has a sweet, nutty flavor that nicely complemented the Beans Poriyal.
- As with the appetizers we sampled at dinner, we also got some of the Aloo Tikki, small, seasoned potato patties that are a popular Indian snack. Like potato chips, Aloo Tikki is enjoyable by itself, but perhaps best savored when dipped into some of the chutneys available at the buffet, especially the mint chutney.
- The buffet included Tandoori Chicken, an iconic Indian dish in which chicken is basted with yogurt and spices, including cumin and red pepper. This chicken was spicy but not overpowering.
Unfortunately, when placed in a buffet warmer, chicken tends to dry out, and that was our experience.
- For dessert, the buffet offered Halwa, a sweet dish made primarily from flour, ghee (clarified butter), sugar and water.
Americans accustomed to decadent dishes will find the relative simplicity of this dish an acquired taste. The pasty texture of this dessert did not appeal to us.