CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Stephanie Okie shows the osso buco available at the new Banana Leaf Bistro located at Market City Shopping Center.
Banana bistro appealing
Once I pounce on a restaurant, it's generally the last you'll see of it in this space. A new menu or new chef might bring another look, but otherwise, there's just too many to keep up with to make revisits practical.
On top of that, I like to vary cuisines and categories of restaurants, so it's out of character to be revisiting Banana Leaf after only two months, and I have to say, I was looking forward to it.
At first, I was confused about an e-mail I received recommending Banana Leaf. "Again," I thought, "I just wrote about that one."
On closer reading, I found the writer was referring, not to Banana Leaf Cafe in the McCully Shopping Center, but Banana Leaf Bistro in the Market City Shopping Center, which opened last month.
There have been national restaurant chains that have expanded rapidly here, but it's rare for a homegrown company to open two restaurants back-to-back. There's a lot to lose if the first one doesn't catch on, and in spite of the public lag time between the two projects, plans were in place simultaneously. It's just that, with its bigger space, renovation work at Banana Leaf Bistro took longer.
In spite of business closures in the islands, which have led other restaurateurs I've talked with to rethink expansion plans, the partners behind the cafe simply believed that there will always be people who want to dine out, and that affordable pastas wouldn't be too much of a budget strain.
Banana Leaf Cafe introduced the concept in March, offering quick, casual dishes. I had good experiences there and was excited about the more varied, ambitious menu at Banana Leaf Bistro.
JUST AS at the cafe, the deep, narrow interior is done up in comfortable, modern style. It's quite sedate on early weeknights, but fills up on weekends. I wasn't expecting to see traffic on a Sunday night for instance (what happened to staying at home and watching the Olympics?), so was surprised to see a crowd waiting outside the restaurant in a complex filled with other food purveyors. Service goes up and down with the crowd, and they could definitely use someone more bubbly and helpful at the front desk, where on a busy night, customers waited 15 minutes just to get attention to be placed on the waiting list.
It was amusing to listen to a trio of women a few days later, walking away from the restaurant, contentedly purring about the food, one adding, "I love quiet little restaurants like that."
It took willpower to avoid reordering the same dishes I like at the cafe. One of my favorite dishes there, however, the eggplant Parmesan, didn't make the move. There is overlap in the pastas, pizzas and risotto, and you can check out that review at starbulletin.com/ 2008/06/01/features/eater.html
This is one of those restaurants that gives you the option of dining inexpensively or splurging. One plus for the budget conscious is the B.Y.O.B. policy, with no corkage fee. Start with a dish of steamed clams ($9.95), with a choice of garlic white wine sauce or a light tomato broth. Either would be worthwhile. I love the mellow tomato sauces they use here, which is so different from the hard, acidic or sweet sauces that dominate the marketplace.
Follow up with a simple Italian caprese ($9.95) or a different kind of tomato salad ($8.95), finished with a combination of strawberry dressing and pesto sauce.
What's new here are the addition of heavier entrees: steaks, osso bucco in a mild red wine-tomato sauce ($25.95) and veal chops ($29.95). I tried the pollo alla marsala ($15.25) which was quite tender for breast meat, and the mushroom marsala wine demi-glace was perfection. I was afraid it would be really dry when cutting into it. I'd had a bad experience with dry chicken a week before and felt this was deja vu. But the problem here lay in the cutlery. The flatware consists of a butter knife when a sharper blade is called for.
I had the same problem with a dish of strip loin steak served with king crab legs ($28.95). It felt tough cutting into it with that butter knife, but taking a look inside and biting into it, I was happy to see it was a perfectly tender medium rare.
The king crab legs were unfortunate, baked crispy and flavorless to boot. The crab also tops other pasta dishes, and I'd think twice about ordering it again.
For the money, I'm not sure if I would order the steak again, but if you're too lazy to cook and can't afford a steakhouse, it may be worthwhile to you.
My favorite dessert here is the panna cotta ($4.95), but those who like the flavor of cream cheese might want to try the French cheese pudding ($4.95), which might be described as cheesecake in a glass.