Modern and Upscale

Chef Z pushes the boundaries of Indian cuisine at Bay Leaf.

By Jan Walsh

Tonight, we take a culinary journey to India—via 5 Points South.

Bay Leaf Modern Indian Cuisine and Bar is Birmingham Restaurants’ first Indian restaurant! Long overdue, but worth waiting for this special place. The owners are Indian born, local entrepreneurs and medical doctors, The Spice Library Group. Thus, the menu is ingredient driven and features each corner of the Indian subcontinent, as each area has its own cuisine.

Bay Leaf’s Executive Chef, Pritam Zarapkar is affectionately known as “Chef Z.” Chef Z is a graduate in Culinary Sciences from the Business and Hotel Management School in Luzerne, Switzerland. And he brings a vast experience of Indian, French, and American cuisines and 300 original recipes to the table at Bay Leaf. With 15 years of executive chef experience, Chef Z has started many successful restaurants—across both Europe and the United States. Also to Bay Leaf, several chefs he has mentored through the years followed him here and to Bay Leaf’s Highway 280 location.

Bay Leaf’s regular menu is divided among modern Indian appetizers, Indian street food, soups and salads, sides and breads, traditional Indian curries, vegetarian delicacies, chef specials, and desserts. In addition to offering vegetarian options, many dishes are also vegan, gluten free, peanut free, and dairy free.

Chef Z evolves authentic Indian cuisine using essential Indian spices—without reinventing it. Tonight, he prepared a special tasting menu for us. But rather than choosing among the offerings, we put ourselves in his skilled hands and allow him to select for us. After asking our preferences in cocktails and learning that Kev likes light and sweet. But I do not shy away from whiskey or rum. We begin with two cocktails, Rooh-afzah Cosmopolitan for Kev and a Paan Old Fashioned for me. The cosmo is a thirst quenching, heat beating, rose colored cocktail served in a martini glass, made of Indian rose flavored sherbet, rooh-afzah, top shelf vodka, Triple Sec, lemon, and a splash of orange juice. And the old fashioned is Bay Leaf’s signature Indian take on a traditional old fashioned, which boasts Indian gulkand sugars muddled with rye whiskey and bitters, garnished with a twist of citrus rind, paan, edible betel leaf, and maraschino cherry served in a low ball. Opposites attract in these two, decadent drinks.

We pair our delectable drinks with every appetizer on the tasting menu: Tandoori Shrimps, Karari Bhindi, Crab Lollipops, and Tamarind Glazed Beef Short Ribs. If you like it hot, try the Tandoori Shrimps. Eight succulent Gulf shrimp were marinated in a select spice blend and yogurt Indian sauce for two days. Then they are slow grilled with mint and chutney in an Indian clay oven. Layers of tantalizing tastes shine through this red hot dish cooled by Cilantro Chutney. They had me at “okra” with the Karari Bhindi. Slivers of crisp, flash fried okra arrive in an edible papad bowl nestled in a whimsical, red serving cart. Delightful! We eat everything but the cart. The The light and lovely Crab Lollypops are four golden and delicate snow crab claw clusters, served with Chef’s divine raspberry-chili sauce. As our final app, Chef may have saved the best for last as the short ribs shine! The tangy tamarind glaze is perfectly set onto the generous short ribs. And on first bite, we swoon over this magnificent meaty dish with its tangy glaze.

Next we try two soups: Chicken Coriander and Lentil Shorba. And both soups are exceptional. But the chicken soup is one of the best things I have ever tasted. Spicy ginger and aromatic cilantro brighten this beautiful bowl of cutting-edge comfort. I would come here just for this soup. Highly recommended!

Time for new cocktails before our main courses, Mangojito and Cardamom French 75. Fresh Indian mangoes star in this marvelous summer mojito, mixed with club soda, white rum, and garnished with fresh mint and lime. And the sparkling cocktail is a fizzy and fun synthesis of Champagne, cognac, lemon juice, and cardamoms. In all four of tonight’s craft cocktails, we are wowed by flavors we have never tasted. One sip of each is like a first kiss, which leads to another…

Our main dishes include Malai Kofta, Tandoori Chicken, Lamb Lal, Maas, and Shrimp Moilee, and the rice special of Lucknowi Parda Biryani. Malai means cream, and kofta means fried balls. This vegetarian, dumpling dish is made of heavenly cottage cheese balls smothered in a scrumptious smooth, white gravy—with origins of Mughal occupied India. The chicken dish is a classic from the state of Punjab, India. Very approachable for newbies in its spices, the game hen is crisp on the outside and juicy on the inside. The lamb is a spicy chili dish, from the desert state of Rajasthan, India. Although it looks much like an Italian sauce, no tomato is used in this gravy—just dried, red hot chilis. Yet it is balanced beautifully with yogurt and garlic, which tame the heat. Next plump shrimp float in an exotic curry of coconut milk with aromatic spices, with origins of the state southern state of Kerala, India. And for our main course finale, Chef’s special parda (dough) biryani (fry before cooking) of an aromatic, long grain rice layered with vegetables, Indian spices, and our choice of chicken, goat, and lamb among other options, including a vegetarian one. It is the princely biryani, royal Awadhi style of the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh—cooked in a prada covered copper bowl to preserve aromas. And it serves two. It arrives with pomp and ceremony, as our server cuts the bread, revealing the colorful rice dish. Aromas rise with the steam, and suddenly we are hungry again. Highly recommended!

We end our Indian culinary adventure with a fourth course of two desserts: Caramelized Gulab Jamun, Rabdi and Kulfi Falooda. Who can resist stuffed gulab jamun (rose fruits) with slow cooked, sweet condensed milk along with Indian ice cream—popsicle style—atop a bed of dessert noodles, garnished with nuts and muglai rose syrup? Not us!

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