I’ve had the pleasure of teaching bread skills and working on a couple of occasions with the enterprising owner of a new Bangladeshi restaurant that’s opened up in the Custard Factory, Aftab Rahman. I remember talking to Aftab about Bay Leaf over a year ago, back when I was bitching about naan bread and visiting his other restaurant, Mint in Yardley. It’s taken me way too long to visit though, but we finally got round to it last Saturday. Aftab has certainly chosen a challenge, the previous occupier of their site in the Custard Factory was the ill-fated fine dining car crash that was Matthews. I never went myself (it wasn’t open long enough), but I remember reading the reviews with pity.
Like Mint, Bay Leaf is certainly pushing their Bangladeshi roots in their publicity, and Aftab is certainly genuinely proud of that heritage, which is refreshing to see in the age of the ubiquitous ‘Indian’ and ‘Curry House’. The menu seems to display several dishes that I’ve not seen on a menu before but there are notable concessions to what Aftab calls ‘vintage’ curries – korma’s, balti’s, dhansak’s etc… A bit of arm-twisting has gone on to allow these onto the menu, which is a shame I think. We stick to the signature dishes and plump for a lamb haleem, and the freestyle chicken which as the questionable title suggests is a daily changing version of chicken cooked on the bone – cooked with spinach and channa today, accompanied by rice and chapatti (I still avoid naan’s these days). The lamb was genuinely fall-apart tender and the accompanying sauce had a spicy sweetness followed by a pleasant and not overpowering bitter astringency from the Bangladeshi limes. The chicken was good too, plenty of it, still moist and nicely accompanied by the mild sauce and iron-y spinach. Chapatti’s were excellent, far better than mine and better than I’ve had anywhere – light, fluffy, and smoking hot. Flavour-wise there was little to fault our main dishes although presentation on the plate could certainly be stepped up with a little more thought. We shared a gulab jamun for dessert, which was flamed with brandy at the table which is a nice twist for a traditional dessert, although executed a little clumsily with a camping stove set up next to the table. Presumably a heated spoon and a match could do the trick a bit more elegantly.
One of the best points about Bay Leaf is the well-stocked bar and the manager Abbs who is very attentive and a trained sommelier too. We finished with a night-cap in the bar, a nice part of the space that Aftab would like to become a bit like a Bangalore coffee house during the day attracting some of the office and conference crowd from the custard factory. Bay Leaf is definitely in a bit of a funny spot with no other evening eateries around, and although it started to fill up as Saturday evening progressed, I feel that they’re going to have to capitalise on that daytime market if they’re going to make it a long term success. I’d certainly like to check it out during the day and sample the coffee and see what they do in terms of light lunches. There’s lots of things pointing in the right direction, but they certainly have their work cut out in that location. Bay Leaf has had very contrasting reviews from Birmingham’s two main press reviewers, Paul Fulford and Richard McComb (check out their contrasting reviews on Matthews too). I have an inkling that Richard McComb is wrong on this one.
If you’re into your your live jazz they hold a jazz night once a month which is very popular (they sold out the night before we were there), the next one is the 4th of November, and you can find out loads of other stuff on their excellent website (even ordering takeaway online!): www.bayleaf-restaurant.co.uk