So much more than curry

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Does sag paneer seem passe? Has dal become dull? Is your once burning (literally) enthusiasm for Indian food cooling down due to the ubiquity of commonplace dishes like chicken tikka? Then it's time you zoomed off to the spacious and modern Bayleaf Bistro.

"A change of perception in Indian dining" is the stated motto on Bayleaf's broad menu. What the change amounts to is wildly explosive seasoning strategies that might reignite the excitement you first had when local Indian cuisine still seemed exotic.

Spread across several pages, Bayleaf's bold dishes are listed under come-on headers like "Trendy Starters," "Saucy Suggestions," "Old Flames" and "Vegetarian Vibes." Basically what Bayleaf offers is all the golden oldies you'd expect but also a lot of Indo-Chinese fare - which I love.

An inspired mix of Indian spices and Chinese styles (Chinese cooking is extremely popular in India), Indo-Chinese food is a rarity - the fusion cuisine that actually works. I suppose it should, considering it's been developing for about a century.

At Bayleaf, Indo-Chinese finds its fullest expression in the Trendy Starters section. Since each entry is entree-sized yet appetizer-priced, it's inexpensive, fun and even thrilling to order some rice and Indian bread (like the dense whole wheat Lacchedaar Paratha, $2.50) and then compose a group meal out of a few starters.

Like the powerhouse Chicken 65 ($7). Numerous arguments exist over whether Chicken 65 is named for the year the dish became vastly popular in Mumbai, its number of ingredients - or legions of other reasons. Personally speaking, I can live with its naming mystery as long as there's a plate of it near to me.

Sort of an Indian spin on General Tso's chicken, it's hunks of fried poultry glistening in a thickish aromatic beet-red paste popping with chilis, garlic and ginger and sprinkled with cilantro. Words struggle to do it justice, but as an illustration, only a couple of nibbles had me hopping like the Indian god Shiva when he danced the cosmos into existence.

And the kingdom of heaven is like mustard seeds clinging to homemade whey cheese - or its hellish heat, depending on your capsaicin tolerance. I'm talking about the fierce and addictive Paneer Shazlik Raiwalla ($8). It's a mountainous pile of mild, dense but lean dairy cubes tandoori-grilled, tossed with chaat masala (a popular Indian street-snack spice mix) and rendered blistering hot by those seeds and chilis.

I found the Hakka Manchurian ($6) to be equally wonderful -and fiery. Crisp and chewy, dice-sized cubes of veggie dumplings (it can also be made with cauliflower) were fried and finished off with a volatile reddish-brown coating hopped up on soy sauce.

Prawn Shaslik Chili Fry ($8) was about 25 small (but not tiny) shrimp in an incendiary sort of sweet Indian mole. Also very good.

Diners frightened by sharing dishes with aggressive spices can also eat great here on more standard entrees like Tandoori Chicken Chooza ($12 -the familiar, if tangier, red-tinted chicken); a curry classic like Rogan Josh ($13 - stewy lamb in a rich, thick, clove-y and cardamom-y sauce); or a super-aromatic (and huge!) rice dish like Vegetable Biryani ($12).

Another thing I like about Bayleaf is that they'll spear nearly anything onto a kebab and thrust it into their super-hot clay tandoor oven. Such as spinach and paneer, the main components in Subz Hara Kabab ($11). Lightly battered and dry-seared, this unusual preparation ate like delicious logs of somewhat crumbly Indian falafel.

While I also enjoyed the very healthy, gently seasoned salmon kebabs (Leeli Chutney Ma Salmon, $18), I loved their halibut cousins (Malai Halibut, $17). Both were gargantuan and would feed two or three hearty eaters.

Bayleaf is a stylish, friendly, roomy and colorfully mod place where servers wear hygienic food-handling gloves to deliver large portions. In another nice touch, all of its snazzy white plates (some of them wavy) bear Bayleaf's "signature."

On the slightly down side, it's strictly BYOB (and you'll need cold beer), the check can take a while to arrive (though food shoots out quickly) and you might have to sit through New Age-y tunes sometimes. But considering its uncompromising and uncommon food, those are negligible concessions. G.A. says check out Bayleaf soon.

Bayleaf India Bistro

1025 Polaris Pkwy., Polaris