The Bay Leaf could easily be just another one of those dark, strenuously hip Deep Ellum joints fashioned out of aging warehouse brick and smoky oil paintings. On certain nights it even has live jazz, tucked up front by the door. During non-live-music times, though, Bay Leaf jazz is like sonic Velveeta, rich in that processed kind of schmaltz that makes the Heimlich maneuver such a welcome addition to dining choreography.
But that's about the only gag inducer you're likely to come across here. The Bay Leaf is a simple, cut-and-dried dining experience unobstructed by decorative or culinary static, which in most cases would equal boring at best.
Bay Leaf owner Ronnie Crayton says he's trying to create food that can be eaten every day at reasonable prices in an elegant atmosphere: typical corporate double-babble. So it's no surprise that he has a résumé with 12 years of corporate restaurant experience spanning Cracker Barrel, Darden Restaurants (Red Lobster, Olive Garden) and Mondo's Restaurant, Bakery & Bar. Yet The Bay Leaf doesn't come across as a dream with corporate retreads. Maybe that's because the restaurant is a clash of disparate constituents. In a Deep Ellum hole once known as Cajun Bob's and now filled with jazz, chef Paul Singhapong whittles a New American/fusion menu that includes steak and potatoes and burgers. All these elements are strapped together by an operator weaned on systems and ledger lines. If The Bay Leaf sounds like Maguire's south, that's because it is, albeit on a much smaller budget, and if Crayton is as smart as Mark Maguire, he'll be around for the long trek.
The Bay Leaf's primary dining space is actually a loft above the bar, overlooking the front of the restaurant, so there's a bird's-eye view of the front door and the parking meters beyond. In back of the loft slot is a private dining room cordoned off by sheer draperies. This elevation puts the ventilation and plumbing guts at eye level, so while waiting for your wine you can ponder the trendy interior-design staples that made Deep Ellum famous.
And wine is among the repositories of good thinking found in this restaurant. Fusion restaurants with heavy Asian imprints should be thin on chardonnay and heavy on unconventional whites like pinot blanc and gewürztraminer. The Bay Leaf has lots of these, most from Alsace. Reds are a little heavy on Bordeaux and cabs, which is fine because those are good wines to have with burgers.
It's not only on the wine list that the Bay Leaf steers generally clear of clichés. It does so with the menu as well, although it doesn't so much steer clear of them as it does run them over at high speed. One of the most tiresome installations on menus squirming for flair is the ubiquitous crab cake, which usually arrives as a nondescript disk of mush with a dollop of rémoulade that's hard to distinguish from the "special sauce" pressed into a Big Mac. The Bay Leaf serves up something called tempura-fried crab cake rolls that look like corroded California rolls from a sushi bar. This tiny warp on this conventional New American staple injects some interest into this appetizer, served as it is with a dab of wasabi rémoulade. This is an imaginative perversion, with a firm crab flavor and textural stiffness from the tempura coating that provides a subtle, welcome twist.
According to its Web site, The Bay Leaf aims to please "the most conservative or the most adventurous food lover." Yet while most menus aiming to gratify this wide a swath only manage to repel the conventional while boring the valiant, The Bay Leaf maneuvers without any serious dilution or excessive theatrics. Wound-up sophisticates will gobble up the sautéed escargot and the pan-seared sea scallops with carrot mashed potatoes, while those with more one-dimensional cravings will be content to purse their lips on steaks, burgers, club sandwiches and steak sandwiches.
Packed with avocado wedges, onions, gooey Gruyere cheese and a couple of tomato slices, Bay Leaf's steak sandwich is the kind of lunch that can put embarrassing stains on your pants. One bite pushes the whole green gooey mess out the other end. Still, it's tasty, with tender steak cut into juicy strips slipped between a crispy but moist sourdough roll. Though when I discovered that a dash of salt was needed to amp up the flavor, I found the handsome silver saltshaker caked shut with brine.
Petite fillet, too, was moist and tender, and a side of avocado-tomato relish, a kind of Southwestern shot in this New American arm, was a refreshing palate-arouser that foiled the weightiness of the beef.
Less successful was the curried lobster bisque. Pale brown with green threads of curry embedded on the surface, the slurry was smooth but not rich, tasting rather like non-dairy creamer kicked with spice. If this soup was haunted by a lobster, it certainly wasn't generating a ghost of flavor.
More adventuresome efforts hold up a little better. Tuna tartare, ground fish chalked with hard-boiled egg rémoulade, arrived as a milky pinkish mound with a nest of salmon caviar perched on top. In front was a neat stack of crispy toasted baguette slices. The loose mound harbored pocks and fissures caused by bits of scallion, red onion and capers. Near-perfect circles of amber aioli sauce marked the rim of the plate. The fish was cool, clean and refreshing, giving off subtle herb billows once it hit the tongue.
Hot and sour chicken-rice soup had the same effect. Less a full throttle spice assault than a gentle sensual prick, the soup was sophisticated and elegant. In fact, the broth is so cleanly imbued with heat and tang that the sweetness of the snow peas is able to break out and play off these flavors. Yet the chicken chunks, submerged with the rice under a flotilla of scallions, mushrooms and red bell pepper specks, were dry.
Dryness also infested the grilled coriander-garlic marinated chicken breast. The flavor was well dispersed among the pieces of breast, leg and thigh, but there was no way to appreciate it on dry meat. Plus, the bed of coconut rice upon which it rested was pasty.
One of the most ambitiously exotic items on the menu is also one of the most brazenly New American. Creamy soy-ginger crawfish with braised fennel is kind of a sloppy stew spilling out of puff pastry. The little crawdad coils were briny and sweet, and the strips of aromatic fennel gave them loftiness. Everything waded in a milky brown fluid that didn't have a pronounced ginger sting, but did have the silken texture of coconut milk and dark little oil slicks that tasted like a sweet soy reduction. This is an alluring little appetizer. The only drawback was that the plate was so searingly hot that the sauce began to congeal.
Roasted five-spice duck with grilled pineapple chutney in a black soy-orange sauce had other problems. Arriving as breast slices pushed up against leg and thigh, the duck was tough, dry and gray--a bit overcooked. Yet it tasted slightly old as well, emanating a wet-dog aroma. The black soy-orange sauce worked well, with its slight sweet touch doing diligence on the duck richness. Planted off to the side of the plate was a large spring roll. This roll didn't really work with the composition, no matter what condition the duck was in. Loosely wrapped and tightly packed with coarsely shredded raw vegetables, the rice paper sheath absorbed the sauce and grew gummy and soggy on one end.
But desserts canceled out many of these shortcomings. Classic baked crème brûlée, topped with a warm, freshly torched sugar lid, was rich and smooth with a thick, brittle crust. Steamed macadamia nut-banana pudding was a light, airy and rich dessert served with chocolate and caramel sauces.
The Bay Leaf has a lot of absorbing personality, the kind that isn't readily evident until you sit with it awhile. And like people with distinctive personalities, it has a few flaws. Yet it's charming enough to effectively blot those out. And when you consider the other restaurants around town that feature jazz as an entrée, The Bay Leaf has them visibly beaten.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.