At one end of an unassuming strip mall in Eden Prairie is Bay Leaf Indian Cuisine, an eatery providing Indian and Indochinese food to the southwest suburbs. The restaurant is the brainchild of owner Ammani Jayanti, who, along with three other co-owners, felt the time and place were just right to bring healthy versions of their favorite foods into the community.
Jayanti came to the restaurant with a significant food background, having worked in catering for 25 years. The catering work was focused on traditional American foods, along with a considerable sideline in baking, but she wanted the opportunity to use her background to bring her family’s favorite foods to a wider audience.
Eden Prairie turned out to be a logical choice. “We were just driving around and saw this spot,” Jayanti says, “and it was perfect.” The strip mall is located adjacent to a strong mix of business and residential buildings, providing a ready-made customer base. It was also attractive because of its proximity to Optum, where Jayanti’s husband works.
The restaurant opened in 2014 and initially worked with a simple menu, offering soup and wrap sandwiches. Jayanti wanted to deliver a consistent level of quality before expanding the menu. “Most restaurants we see serving Indian and Indochinese foods are not as consistent, not as clearly defined, as we are,” she says.
The early days were like a cross between Chipotle and Panda Express, she notes, with a buffet and combo plates. Today, the lunch service is similar to that but with added a la carte choices. The dinner menu is more of a sit-down affair with a larger menu of classic Indian and Indochinese offerings, including curries, biryani, vindaloo, Szechuan noodles and naan.
Jayanti emphasizes that diners, who aren’t wild about spicy-hot foods, should not be afraid to try Bay Leaf’s dishes. “People think Indian food is only spicy,” Jayanti says. “So we try and explain what the food is, how it can be flavorful, but not hot. There are some spicy dishes, but not all of them are. We can recommend several popular dishes, and people try them and are delighted.”
Jayanti’s vision is to create healthier versions of classic dishes. “Lots of people want to eat something healthy. We need healthy foods,” she says. “We have salads with veggies and sprouts and small Indian garnishes. We use lentils a lot, and they’re tremendously nutritious. We focus on offering lean protein. We blend all our spices here, and we don’t use MSG.”
Among the most popular dishes is butter chicken, a classic Indian dish with chicken cooked in a yogurt sauce. “It’s a typical Indian-style dish, and it’s very popular with all kinds of people,” Jayanti says. Other diner favorites include lamb curry, shrimp masala and the traditional Indian dessert of gulab jamun, which are Indian doughnuts served in a warm honey syrup with saffron or cardamom. “Indian meals always end with dessert,” Jayanti says.
As for beverages, the traditional mango lassi is a favorite. “It’s a freshly whipped milkshake with cultured yogurt and mango,” she says. “It’s delicious, and for those who do like spicy foods, it’s a good way to offset the heat.”
The restaurant has several vegetarian offerings, and Jayanti says that vegans should not be afraid to visit. “Tell us up front, and our chef will provide many vegan options,” she says.
Jayanti finds the process of educating customers who aren’t familiar with the cuisine to be a joy, not an onerous task. “It’s such a pleasure to meet everyone,” she says. It’s part of the service ethic that Bay Leaf is committed to providing. “We’re focused on the quality of food, but also on the quality of our service,” she says. “We sit with them, try to explain what the different dishes are, talk about what they think Indian food is and if they think it’s only spicy. We make our customers feel comfortable and at home. They become part of our family.”
In the two years the restaurant has been open, it’s built up a loyal following. “People started seeing good reviews on Yelp, and then they came to see us,” Jayanti says. “We received a 2016 Yelp award, which was wonderful.” Besides serving walk-in and takeout customers, Bay Leaf has also built a steady business through local delivery services including DoorDash and Yelp Eat24. They’ve also offered catering to local businesses that want to bring lunch in for employee or customer meetings.
At the time of this writing, Bay Leaf had just acquired the space next door and was beginning an expansion that they hope to complete soon, Jayanti says. The added room would likely be a more formal sit-down dining experience, and they will apply for a beer and wine license as well. “We may make some menu changes,” Jayanti says. “We’re talking about adding more breakfast, more grilled items, maybe start working with ingredients like quinoa.”
She points to the two chefs, who staff the kitchen, as integral to the eatery’s success. “We have a limited menu, but we limit it to things we can do very well,” she says. The chefs have a great deal of say in the planning of the new menu and how it will meet the standard of the existing offerings. “We’re blessed to have wonderful chefs,” Jayanti says. “We are like family here.”