Tuesday, May 4, 2010
'...I could immediately tell it had been simmered with the right flavors.'
A Southerner, a Filipino, and a Utahn walk into a cafe...oh wait...that sounds too much like the start of a raunchy joke doesn't it? Okay, let's start over. Two friends and I went for lunch downtown to take advantage of the Dine-O-Round specials. We settled on the Bayleaf Cafe over other restaurants because although the Southerner and I (the Filipino) had been to Bayleaf before, the Utahn had not - and we were all very eager to try out the eclectic Asian menu that had intrigued us all. Plus at $5, the price was right for lunch and the time was now. So Bayleaf it was.
The restaurant occupies a spacious downtown location. The interior of the Bayleaf is clearly a work in progress; it isn't what I'd call a refined avant garde atmosphere....it gives off more of a homey, yet quirkey vibe. Speaking of homey, yet quirky, the menu definitely seems to have a few oddities at first glance. A distinctly Southern portion of the menu is complimented with an interesting selection of Asian dishes (huh?). The entire menu is then rounded out with standard diner style breakfast fare (double huh?!?). This combination does seem a bit confusing, perhaps even oddly unfocused to the average eater, but given the background of the co-owners who themselves are Asian (Filipino and Chinese) and from the American South, it does seem to make a little more sense...at least it does to me.
As a kid, I was treated to an odd mix of Filipino food made by my mom and American comfort foods created by my dad (who was a cook in the Navy). So I know a little about intersecting cultural bounds through the comfort of food. I think this interesting exposure to different flavors and food styles as a kid has really shaped my palate today and it certainly has opened me up to seeing food in a little different light. To me seeing Asian food alongside American comfort foods like meatloaf on the Bayleaf's menu is not only NOT odd, it's pretty damned cool. Now as a kid, one of my all time favorite Filipino foods to eat was a dish called adobo. Adobo is a Filipino dish of meat (chicken or pork usually) stewed in a combination of soy sauce, garlic, bay leaves, vinegar, and black peppercorns. It's the national dish of the Philippines and is probably one of the most popular and most recognizable Filipino dishes aside from lumpia (the beloved Filipino egg roll).
I myself make chicken adobo frequently at home but always long for my mom's home cooking. So for this reason, adobo is comfort food to me. Unfortunately I feel like I can never make this dish as good as my mom - so I was really eager to try the Bayleaf's version out. My Southern friend and I decided to do the Dine-O-Round chicken adobo lunch dish; it came in a medium sized bowl full of steamed rice, topped off with the chicken adobo along with stir-fried veggies. Adobo was something new for the Southerner and I was impressed and excited that she wanted to try it for the first time. She said she really enjoyed it. As the adobo hit the table and I took a big whiff, I could immediately tell it had been simmered with the right flavors. My first bite of the chicken was what I expected; the flavor profile was easily recognizable to me as adobo: a tamed saltiness from the soy, slight garlic background, and a tangy-ness from the vinegar. The stir fried veggies gave some crunchy texture to the dish, as well as some much needed color. I liked it...and I'm not the easiest person to please. But the big question was, how did it compare to my mom's? Well again, I hold my mom's version in high regard - possibly untouchable. So in all honesty...well...my mom's is better. The flavors are just a little more robust, a little deeper. I mean who doesn't long for your mom's home cooking? Maybe it's that little extra bit of love that a mom puts in that makes the difference? But I would say that the Bayleaf's adobo is very similar in terms of flavor to the adobo I cook myself. And I think my adobo is pretty darned good. So there you have it. I think the Bayleaf's adobo is pretty darned good.
My Utahn friend had the bulgogi for lunch, a Korean beef dish served over the same stir fried veggies and steamed rice. Bulgogi has a characteristic flavor of soy and garlic with a hint of sesame. Again, the Bay Leaf's version did a good job at getting a nuanced flavor of bulgogi down. Although the Utahn agreed that the flavors could have been a bit stronger, the food was still quite delicious; the grilled meat had a nice smoky component as well. Our lunch that day inspired the Utahn to come back to the Bayleaf, where she and her husband tried the pot roast and meatloaf...doing American comfort food their next time around. In fact there are a multitude of menu items like these to choose from. I've been to the Bayleaf now a few times, but prior to this I've only experienced their breakfast menu which I've enjoyed. The Southerner tells me she does like the Southern menu, with the side dishes being the real stars at the Bayleaf Cafe; some of her favorites include the fried pickles, cheesy-grits, and the black-eyed peas (referred to as Hoppin' John on the menu).
In reading what others have said about the Bayleaf, I've noticed a trend where people either love it or hate it. A lot of the negative comments I've read focus on poor service, so I'm happy to report that our service was excellent. Our food came out in a timely manner and the owner even came by our table to check on how our meal went. He also spent a few extra minutes to chat with us. I'm not sure why, but he even brought out a complimentary dessert for us to share - the nanner pudding (Southern hospitality?!?). Nilla wafers topped with banana pudding, chopped bananas, and whipped cream. The pudding was cool and creamy, contrasting nicely with the slight crunch of the Nilla wafers on the bottom...the density of the bananas gave it some much needed body. Mmm...it was a fun end to a lovely meal...not overly fussy or fancy, but it was nice nonetheless.
Take a closer look and you'll notice a bit of clarity in what might seem to be a cluttered, unfocused menu. The menu is clearly centered around comfort food, whether it be comfort food from the Southern U.S. or from Asia. I'm really looking forward to returning to the Bayleaf Cafe. Even though the food may not top my mom's cooking, it does bring back a wonderful taste memory for me...a nostalgia if you will...and that makes me happy. So if the beginning of the story goes - a Southerner, a Filipino, and a Utahn walk into a cafe - I guess the punch line is: and they walk out satisfied.
Bayleaf Cafe ~ Salt Lake City, Utah
159 South Main Street
Co-owners: Seth and Haylen