Location: 416 Semple St., Oakland. 412-605-0400
Hours: Tue.-Sun. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers $3.50-8.50; entrees $8-12
Fare: Northern and Southern Indian
Atmosphere: Bollywood diner
A lot of marriages lead to restaurants. It's only natural that shared tastes and dreams should culminate in shared labors and, with luck, shared success. Bayleaf Indian Cuisine, in the heart of Oakland's student quarter, is the fruit of another kind of marriage: two established businesses: Udipi Café and the operators of an Oakland sidewalk concession. Together, they have taken over an empty restaurant (now its third Indian incarnation by our count) to offer cuisines from their respective regions of India.
"Respective" is the operative word here -- this is the kind of marriage where the CDs are still being filed separately. We understand why venerable Udipi, the grand-daddy of Pittsburgh South Indian restaurants, would want to maintain its identity, but we were nonetheless perplexed to be offered two menus, each with identical covers but completely different contents, even typefaces. Equally eyebrow-raising was our waiter's description of the southern menu as the "vegetarian" one. While that may be true enough, what genuinely distinguishes it is its regional cuisine, especially since there are meatless options on the northern Indian list as well.
Setting these curiosities aside, we dug into both menus. Udipi's northern Indian partner here is the family that runs the Kashmiri hot truck, a fixture around Pitt's campus. Its offerings consist of mostly familiar curries and sauces over rice and chicken, lamb or goat (as per the menu, all meat is halal).
One item we'd never seen before was chicken Manchurian. As the name suggests, it's an Indian take on a Chinese preparation, and the dish did bear a superficial resemblance to General Tso's chicken. But this kind of translation is usually heavily accented in the home tongue, and Bayleaf's chicken was simultaneously spicier and richer in its native flavor than the poultry in the Chinese dishes we're used to. Alas, the bird itself -- fried to a crisp beneath the thick, dark sauce -- was for the most part dried out and tough.
At the other end of the flavor spectrum was idly, steamed-rice and lentil patties. Staple breakfast items in the south of India, they are offered here as an appetizer. These were bland, light and almost fluffy, as breakfast foods frequently are, with an insubstantial mouthfeel. They were essentially a platform for the serviceable chutneys that accompanied them. Garlic nan bread, however, was a singular delight -- at once crisp and airy and thoroughly infused with the sharp, aromatic bite of fresh minced garlic.
From the southern Indian menu, we also ordered a masala dosai, described as a "rice crepe." We've tried these elsewhere and thought we knew what we were getting, but Bayleaf surpassed our expectations. This dosai was almost cracker-crisp, yet delicate as the crust on crème brulee. The fermented rice batter lent an earthy flavor, while the filling of masala-spiced mashed potato and onion gave the crepe body without dominating either its flavor or its texture. Alas, the sambar, a traditionally accompanying stew of lentils, herbs and spices, did not do this superb creation justice -- it was watery and bland.
Jason's channa batura consisted of garbanzo beans cooked in a sauce with tomatoes, onions and spices, and served with "puffy bread," a term that barely begins to describe this platter-size pillow with an outer, crisp layer and inner, chewy one. The chick peas, meanwhile, were delectable: still firmly distinct in a thick, bright sauce, studded with chunks of tomato, that was at its best with a squeeze of lemon.
Angelique took the opportunity to order something not available on every Indian menu, goat. The bone-in meat was tender and pleasing in texture, though the taste was overwhelmed by the thick, spicy spinach sauce. An avowed spinach-lover who is not afraid of a little heat on her palate, Angelique did not exactly regret ordering this dish, but she had a feeling it did not showcase Bayleaf's strengths.
Those assets include the breadth of the menu -- northern and southern Indian under one roof -- and an evident genius for breads and other foods, such as the dosai, produced from a grain-based batter. Like many an imperfect marriage, Bayleaf has moments of transcendence which put its flaws and frictions into perspective. It is the kind of restaurant where one favorite dish can keep you coming back.
- Heather Mull
- Channa batura, fried "puffy bread" served with chickpeas in a spiced tomato sauce, and a dosai with samber and chutney