A lunchtime saunter up Sauchiehall Street can be a wonderful thing. It seems like all of humanity is represented; from pensioners to office workers, small men with large dogs, students, boiler-suited buskers and evangelising preachers shrieking damnation through the distorted buzz of a loud hailer. Such was the scene on a mild July day as I walked its length to the junction with Cambridge Street, en route to one of my regular haunts for what’s probably the best lunch you can get in the city for a little over a tenner.
The Banana Leaf occupies a corner position at the junction of Cambridge and Hill Streets, a unit that was once the other half of neighbouring Glasgow institution Fazzi. A glass box with a slick but casual interior, the restaurant feels slightly out of place on what is otherwise a fairly grim stretch of road connecting Sauchiehall Street and Cowcaddens. The location isn’t great, so what of the food?
The Banana Leaf styles itself as a Malaysian Chinese restaurant which, when I first visited several years ago, posed more questions than it answered. I presumed that this was a Malaysian restaurant that, lacking the courage of its convictions, deferred to the Cantonese staples that Glaswegians know and love. Not so. Malaysian Chinese cuisine is a distinctive genre of its own derived from the culinary traditions of Chinese immigrants fused with the native spices and flavours of Malaysia. The resultant food is something rather special.
Lunchtime at the Banana Leaf means their two course set menu. The menu card reads “Starters” and “Main Courses” but your meal will come in a single serving on a black wooden tray. It’s a small detail but one that makes a lot of sense. A spring roll or roti canai is quickly demolished if served separately. But paired with the main event you can take a bite and come back to it, or anger the food gods by dipping something inappropriate in your curry.
With my noodle obsession getting the better of me I went for the only noodle dish on the menu: the laksa. Noodles are my thing, but noodles floating in a rich and satisfying, curry-coconut broth is enough to send me to my happy place. I chose rice vermicelli noodles and they held up well to the piping hot soup. As well as the noodles there were crispy prawn wontons, slices of fishcake along with chunks of fried tofu and char siu. Every element was delicious but the char siu deserves a special mention. Too often this Chinese barbecue pork is a fatty, gristly disappointment, but here it was tender and bursting with flavour. The overall level of spice was fairly low for a dish with 3 chilis ominously emblazoned alongside it on the menu. This was a much milder laksa than I’ve eaten at Rumours for example. For my side dish I chose achar salad; a sweet and zingy pickled vegetable salad that did a great job of cutting through the richness of the laksa.
My lunch buddy chose crispy chicken fillet served in a plum sauce. The chicken had that peculiarly eastern texture: crispy despite being smothered in sauce. It was tender and the plum sauce had a moreish sweet and sour quality despite not packing a particularly distinctive flavour. The accompanying fried rice was served piping hot and in generous proportions. His side was keropok lekur, which apparently translates as crispy fish crackers and these were served with a chili dipping sauce. They looked rather unappealing to me but I’m assured that they were tasty and pungently fishy.
I’ve always enjoyed the food at the Banana Leaf. The lunch menu is astonishing value at £10.50 and it whets the appetite for a return visit where the rest of their extensive menu can be explored. But I’ve never quite made it for that return visit perhaps, in part, due to the location. Thankfully I no longer have that excuse as they’ve recently opened a restaurant on Byres Rd. A visit to the Banana Leaf followed by an excursion along Ashton Lane sounds like a perfect Saturday evening to me.
For two courses plus two soft drinks our bill came to an almost comical £21.30. It’s difficult to see how you could do better than this on a Friday lunchtime.
67 Cambridge Street
0300 124 5099
Quick and friendly service