When most restaurants 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) said, “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 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,” Zarapkar said. 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.”
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 in Birmingham appreciate good food and they support local restaurants.
“I am getting good support from all the locals, from all my guests,” Zarapkar said. “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 in 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.
Diners 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 requested. 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. A more modern approach to appetizers includes Indian fried chicken and karari bhindi, thin-cut okra tossed in gram flour and flash-fried until crispy. Crab lollypops, made with snow crab claw clusters, are among the restaurant’s most popular dishes.
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.
Order the biriyani for a bit of theater at your table.
A pot of fragrant, long-grained rice is steam-cooked with meat (or paneer or vegetables) and various spices and sealed with naan. The server brings the dish to the table and slices open the crisp naan cover just before serving, releasing a rush of savory, mouthwatering aroma.
For dessert, there’s the floral-scented kulfi falooda – traditional Indian ice cream served on a bed of dessert noodles and garnished with nuts and rose syrup. The chai tea flan is a creamy custard infused with Indian Darjeeling tea.
This is beautiful food, thoughtfully arranged and served on colorful plates, in shiny copper pots or on metal platters shaped like banana leaves.
“As I was being trained as a chef, I was always taught that most of the people, they like to eat with their eyes,” said Chef Z. “So, no matter how good the food is if you don’t have that eye appeal, if you don’t have that presentation … people might not enjoy it.” This fine-dining concept is vital, he said. “So that’s why we focus on presentation. The food is good and tasty, but the presentation is equally important for everyone to enjoy.”
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.
Classics like a dirty martini, gin and tonic and Moscow mule are available, too, along with single malt whiskies, international and local beers and a thoughtful selection of wines by the bottle and glass.
You can order at Bay Leaf online for pick up or delivery. There’s outdoor seating out front, and an alleyway alongside the building leads diners to an outdoor seating area shared with other Five Points Lane tenants. There’s a catering menu of boxed lunches featuring the Desi burger and curly fries, masala quesadillas and more.
Because Chef Z’s partners are doctors, there are careful COVID-19 protections in place, 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) are trained in proper preventive techniques by healthcare professionals. The space is regularly cleaned and sanitized morning, afternoon and evening. And there’s a bottle of hand sanitizer on every table. All that’s reassuring, allowing diners to come back to a dining room and experience some semblance of normality.
Chef Z said, “We need to give something good to people because a lot of people are still wanting to go out.” He’s proud of his team for helping make that possible.
“My team is making everything successful,” he said. “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.”
The public response has been great – and inspiring, he said. “We thought we might just run it as a normal Indian restaurant, but the kind of response that I got, the kind of feedback that I’ve been getting from the customers, I said, ‘This is the time to fly high.’ And we started doing a lot of new stuff. We came up with a couple of new inventions like the crab lollipop, the short ribs with the tamarind glaze, the raspberry paneer tikka. We decided that people love to eat (in Birmingham). So, let’s give them something different because people are excited for something new.
“And with the kind of response that I got from all the locals around here, (that) gave us a kind of confidence, you know, and after that we said, ‘OK, now we’re not going to look back, we have to look forward.’”
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.
Susan Swagler has written about food and restaurants for more than three decades, much of that time as a trusted restaurant critic. She shares food, books, travel and more at www.savor.blog. Susan is a founding member and past president of the Birmingham chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, a philanthropic organization of women leaders in food, wine and hospitality whose members are among Birmingham’s top women in food.