CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Jodi Heaukulani shows Banana Leaf Pasta Cafe's Shrimp and Scallop Fettuccine, a popular dish at the McCully Shopping Center restaurant.
A winning transition from ramen to pasta
You might say the owners of Banana Leaf Cafe swapped one noodle for another when they opened the Italian-style pasta cafe in McCully Shopping Center. The couple behind the new restaurant are Ken and Cindy Wong, started the chain of five Sumo Ramen shops with other partners, and teamed with Sam and Fiona Lo for this latest venture.
Yes, they are different noodles, and luckily the couple had the humility to call in a consultant to help them with the recipes and flavors. The result is a restaurant worth trying.
They're no fools. With food prices on the rise, diners are already searching for inexpensive fare - if they can afford to search at all - and with the Atkins craze reduced to remembrances of times past, people are saying hello to pasta again.
Banana Leaf Cafe is cozy and clean, with a vibe of casual elegance. With Chinese waitstaff, I assumed Chinese ownership. Not that we're supposed to notice. Maybe that's politically incorrect, but I find places of origin and training do have a way of making themselves known in the balance of flavors on the plate, which is not necessarily wrong. It just is.
It's also a new phenomenon. We've known about Japan's affinity with European culture and Italian pasta, and accommodated their hybrid restaurants for a long time, and I was wondering what this Italian-Chinese mix would turn out to be. It was a prospect both exciting and scary, the best kind for a culinary adventurer.
As it turned out, their consultant did an amazing job because they're turning out pasta as it should be, al dente, and easy on the sauce.
The only two times I detected the Chinese influence were in the chicken and mushroom risotto ($10.95), in which the mushrooms were not porcini, but dehydrated and reconstituted shiitake; and tails left on the shrimp topping a thin-crust seafood pizza ($10.95) also featuring chopped clams, mussels and calamari.
The risottos ($9.95) are made with a light cream sauce that doesn't leave you feeling as heavy as those filled with cheese at other restaurants. That's good news for risotto fans who should have no trouble polishing off the dish without feeling positively porcine afterward.
To start, try the eggplant Parmesan ($6.95) of Italian eggplant, perfectly baked so it's neither too chewy nor too limp, served with a mellow marinara, mozzarella and a sprinkling of Parmesan.
Rings of fried calamari ($6.95) are quite thin, with a chewy factor, but the flour coating with a touch of Cajun spice and spicy tomato sauce are also agreeable.
I really like the marinara sauce here because it is so mellow, when so many other restaurants serve tomato sauces that are off-kilter, whether too sour, sugary or salty.
Flavors are so well-balanced that even the saltiest dish, the meatballs ($8.95) with spaghettini is not really salty at all in comparison to what is typically served in local restaurants. They don't overdo it on the garlic either, unless that is what you want, as with a dish of chicken and anchovy spaghettini. The combination of garlic, olive oil and pasta is so seductive, I ended up eating only the pasta, leaving most of the chicken behind. It's not that the chicken wasn't good. I just didn't want to fill up to a point where I couldn't eat anymore pasta.
Pasta has always been one of the ingredients we could turn to when money was tight, so enjoy it while it lasts. In this economy I'm afraid we'll be heading into bean territory if the price of wheat also keeps escalating.
For dessert, there's tiramisu ($4.95), but I opted for the light cream pudding, panna cotta ($3.95), served with strawberry sauce. Mini cream puffs ($3.95) seemed tempting, but these were the frozen variety. Stick to the other selections.