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
Five Points South location
1024 20th St. S. Unit 101
Birmingham, AL 35205
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
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.