The chaats came fast and furiously at Banana Leaf during the kicky dining ritual this place calls their "Grand Buffet." And that rapid succession of chaats was like an avalanche of flavors, textures and eye-widening chili heat. Each bite was a rush of fun and seemed different from the previous one. But maybe I should begin at the beginning.
Banana Leaf is a mom-n-pop, bare-bones, vegetarian Indian restaurant out on Bethel Road. Strictly a low-overhead type operation, Banana Leaf's small space has limited decoration.
So above a red floor are lime green and tangerine orange walls, a black-painted drop ceiling, a trippy picture of an ornate temple and not much more. In fact, any other semblance of ambiance was the result of ragas played at low volumes and discount-store-bought plastic glasses and plates.
A full menu of Southern Indian favorites is available, but unless you're getting take-out, that aforementioned (if ostentatiously described) "Grand Buffet" is definitely the way to go. It's a meat-free, five-stage feed-athon that's full-flavored and filling. In effect, it also can provide an evening's worth of entertainment for a mere $12. Not bad, huh?
The meal's routine and each course will be explained and described by your server - likely in a quick-hitting, staccato-style voice that hints at the frequency of the recitation.
Up first is a visit to the Lassi station. Lassis are yogurt smoothies, and your "bottomless" options here range from salty (the thinnest and funkiest) to rose (not overly floral), to a neon green citrus (nice and tart) to mango (my favorite).
Now it's time for a chaat - make that five chaats. Chaats are Indian street-food snacks usually served from a cart. At Banana Leaf, the small-plate chaats are delivered to your table in a near dizzying succession of dishes.
What do they taste like? In a word, wild. Some will be chili-forward, some will be sweet, but most all will be crispy and tangy, likely adorning packaged snack foods like puffed rice with Indian spices and chutneys. The selection at Banana Leaf varies, but on my last visit it proceeded like this:
• Bhel Puri - Rice-Krispies-like crunchies treated to a medley of potent sauces that were garlicky, fruity (date chutney) and zingy (cilantro chutney). The distinctive spice mixture called chaat masala gave it a zesty and eggy aspect.
• Ragda Pattis - served warm in temperature, but searingly hot in spiciness was a potato patty surrounded by a pea curry with raw, diced onion. Date chutney lent a bit of heat-leavening sweetness, but you'll need an extra glass of lassi to tame this one.
• Dahi Puri - The "eggiest" (i.e. densest with chaat masala) chaat I sampled here. Served cold were crunchy little wafers (I was told they were made out of "cream of wheat") topped with potatoes, a dab of yogurt and date chutney.
• Samosa Chaat - a tiny and spicy samosa with fennel-y flavors was outfitted with onion and garbanzo beans. This delightful melange arrived temperature hot.
• Pani puri - a refreshing coda to the spicy stampede of chaats, it was a brittle little shell you filled with chilled aromatic water and knocked back quickly.
If the rest of the meal - a serviceable, curry-heavy buffet, a small but nice little dosa (crispy crepe) and swigs of hot chai tea (astringent, milky and palate-cleansing) seemed anticlimactic after the parade of racy chaats, Banana Leaf's Grand Buffet was still a lot of fun.
For more local food news and reviews, click to G.A. Benton's blog at blog.columbusalive.com/underthetable