Turning Over a New Leaf

When most restaurants right now are tweaking their business models to simply remain viable during a pandemic, one Indian restaurant in Birmingham is off to a fresh, new start. 

The new Bay Leaf, rebranded and reimagined, used to be Bayleaf Authentic Indian Cuisine. The Highway 280 location opened in 2014; they expanded to Five Points South in 2019. Now it’s Bay Leaf Modern Indian Cuisine & Bar. It’s still plenty authentic, but there’s a European-trained Indian chef running these kitchens, and he’s pretty inventive and not at all shy about putting his own spin on traditional dishes. 

Executive Chef Pritam Zarapkar (known as Chef Z) says, “I love to play with food! I experiment a lot and sometimes come up with a new product—trying to get myself better every time. … I don’t want to call myself the best. I’m just a learner. I like to call myself a learner, because life is a learning phase which is … going to go on and go on. And the more you learn, the more knowledgeable you get.” 

Chef Z is a graduate of the Business and Hotel Management School in Luzerne, Switzerland, where he studied Culinary Sciences. With more than 15 years of executive chef experience, he has launched more than a dozen restaurants across Europe and in the United States.  For Bay Leaf, he has teamed up with some local investors and Kiran Chavan, a former owner turned general manager. 

“At Bay Leaf Modern Indian Cuisine, we have given a twist to traditional Indian food,” he says. And because Chef Z has a global view and likes to serve his guests foods he enjoys eating, there are some fusions on the menu, too. “It used to be a regular Indian restaurant, but as I came to Birmingham, I came to know that people here are foodies and they like to spend money on food. They are ready for change … people are adventurous over here.”  

I toured the kitchen with Chef Z for an Alabama NewsCenter story. You can read the entire piece and listen to an interview with Chef Z here.

Chef Z draws inspiration from across the Indian subcontinent, from the northern plains to the southern coast, reflecting India’s varied geography, flavors and culture. He relies upon his knowledge of Indian, French and American cuisines to make foods that are fresh and exciting, offering dishes that feature pure, bright flavors with an emphasis on technique and quality ingredients like halal meats and heady spices imported from India. 

This is Indian fine dining in the neighborhood of Highlands Bar & Grill. In fact, Highlands was one of several places Chef Z’s partners took him to show how much people in Birmingham value delicious authenticity. They also spent time at Chez Fonfon, Automatic Seafood and Oysters and a few other places where Chef Z quickly realized people here appreciate good food and they support their local restaurants. 

He says he’s pleased with the warm welcome he’s gotten in Birmingham. “I am getting good support from all the locals, from all my guests. Everyone around here, they are making … the entire Bay Leaf team feel special, and … that makes me proud. That’s really a nice and positive encouragement for us.”

Inside the comfortably fancy Five Points location, which reopened mid-June, a chic, mirrored bar sparkles across the room from an original textured wall that indicates this building has some history. Soft lighting illuminates a large, colorful mural that depicts the diversity of India—the regions, religion, culture, art, clothes and people. It’s a fitting backdrop for a fragrant and spicy curated trip across the subcontinent.

There are traditional Indian favorites such as tikka masalas; tangy kababs; and smoky, clay oven-cooked tandoori chicken as well as modern, signature dishes like raspberry paneer tikka and tangy, slow-cooked, tamarind-glazed beef short ribs. There’s also a desi burger made with lamb cooked in the clay oven and served on a naan bun. You might want to start with some street food-style “chaats” (small snacks). The gol gappa shots, semolina puffs filled with black garbanzo, potato and mint-cilantro water, can be spiked with vodka if you want. The samosa duo is a traditional Indian snack with a savory filling of potatoes, onions and peas. The street dosa—rice and lentil crepes stuffed with vegetables—comes with a coconut chutney and lentil curry. 

The main menu features a variety of traditional Indian curries:  a rich and creamy tomato-based tikka masala; korma with a mild mix of spices, cashews and yogurt; and a spicy, slow-braised vindaloo, which is a Goan curry of lamb, goat or beef with potatoes. There’s also a saag curry made with baby spinach, fenugreek and other Indian greens. Soak up every bit of gravy with pillowy rounds of butter-drenched naan.

Chef Z’s training and global experience shine in some of his favorite recipes. The aromatic, coconut milk-based shrimp moilee is a curry from southern India. The lamb lal maas, from the deserts of Rajasthan, features savory, tender braised lamb in a fragrant, deeply red sauce that gets all its color from dried chilies. 

Even the cocktails are lovely and exciting.

Birmingham native Kayla Goodall is the lead bartender, mixing signature cocktails like the Paan Old Fashioned with Indian gulkand sugars muddled with rye whiskey and bitters, garnished with a twist of citrus rind, a maraschino cherry and a large betel leaf. There’s a chai-tini that combines Indian chai tea with vodka, a splash of ginger liqueurs and a garnish of nutmeg. The Cardamom French 75 is a tasty, spice-forward drink made with cardamom, cognac, champagne and lime juice. 

Because Chef Z’s partners are doctors, there are careful COVID-19 protections in place here, and extra attention has gone into the in-person, dining room experience. There’s no-touch digital ordering with QR code scanning (disposable menus are available for diners who prefer those). Tables are purposefully spaced apart for social distancing. The staff members (wearing protective gear, of course) are trained in proper preventive techniques by healthcare professionals. The space is regularly cleaned and sanitized throughout the day—morning, afternoon and evening. And there’s lots of hand sanitizer—in fact, there’s a big bottle on every table. All that’s reassuring, allowing diners to come back to a dining room and experience some semblance of normality.

Chef Z says, “We need to give something good to people because a lot of people are still wanting to go out.” And he’s proud of his team for helping make that possible.

“My team is making everything successful,” he says. “They’re doing that. They’re doing a lot of hard work—my kitchen team, my servers, my bartenders—everybody who’s associated with Bay Leaf. I’m proud of all of them … because they are my roots at this point, and they are making us successful.”

Bay Leaf Modern Indian Cuisine & Bar

bayleaf@thespicelibrary.com

https://www.bayleafbham.com

Five Points South location

1024 20th St. S. Unit 101

Birmingham, AL 35205

205-777-3070

Lunch served daily 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Dinner served Sunday through Thursday from 5 to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 10 p.m.

Valet parking available

Highway 280 location

5426 Highway 280, Suite 14

Birmingham, AL 35242

 205-518-0208

Lunch served Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Dinner served 5 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday and weeknights and until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Monday.

Reservations strongly suggested.

Fox 6 Books August 2020

These are the books I featured on WBRC Fox 6 this month. From a children’s book about a young John Lewis to a close look at the power of a street address to delicious and different Southeastern Asian barbecue recipes to a book about eels–get ready to be informed and entertained.

Preaching to the Chickens:  The Story of Young John Lewis by Jabari Asim with illustrations by E.B. Lewis

This beautifully illustrated book for grades 2-5 tells the story of the childhood of one of America’s most respected Civil Rights icons:  the late Congressman John Lewis. As a child, Lewis was tasked with taking care of the many chickens on his family’s farm, and he took care of them in his own way:  emulating his church’s ministers by preaching to the hens. When they fought over their meal, he’d tell them: “Blessed are the peacemakers.” When a hen wouldn’t want to share, he’d tell her: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” The future Freedom Rider and U.S. congressman would even baptize newly hatched chicks. E.B. Lewis’s luminous, sun-dappled watercolor illustrations—perfectly capturing the light of an Alabama morning—are as captivating as the story.

The Address Book:  What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race Wealth and Power by Deirdre Mask

The author travels the world and looks back in time (from ancient Rome to modern-day Kolkata) to discover how our addresses (or lack of an address) influence our politics, culture and technology. Addresses, she says, are about identity, class, race and (mostly) power. They are even critical to our health—shown on a map by 19-century British physician John Snow that illustrates the spread of cholera cases during an 1854 outbreak in London. The book is filled with interesting and entertaining information on people and places.

The Flavors of the Southeast Asian Grill by Leela Punyaratabandhu

Fire up that charcoal grill! There are 60 mouthwatering recipes in this new book that show that Asian roadside barbecue is as delicious (and easy) as any of our American backyard versions. The recipes are from Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia and more. Learn techniques, flavor profiles and spices of each area as you use your smoker, grill, or even open flame to cook. Consider Chicken Satay with Coriander and Cinnamon, Malaysian Grilled Chicken Wings and Thai Grilled Sticky Rice. The author maintains that Southeast Asian-style barbecue translates easily to the American outdoor cooking style, so don’t expect these recipes to be Westernized or altered. The integrity of the recipes honor the people who created them as well as their traditions and cultures.  

The Book of Eels:  Our Enduring Fascination with the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World by Patrik Svensson

Life and science come together in this highly informative book that is part memoir, part natural-world nonfiction. The author grew up fishing for European eels with his father, and that led to a lifelong fascination with these creatures. Little, really, is known about the European eel. Where do they come from? What are they, anyway? Fish? Something else? Scientists have plenty of questions about how they breed and give birth, too. And why, after living for decades in freshwater, do they swim back to the ocean at the end of their lives? Svensson draws on history, literature and modern marine biology to create a book that explores our own place in this world—as humans, as animals ourselves.

I link to Amazon to show you exactly what book I’m talking about, but I love to shop locally at Church Street Coffee and BooksThe Alabama Booksmith, Little Professor Book Center, and I often visit my local library.