I don't know why Indonesian food is not more popular in the Bay Area. It's definitely one of the great cuisines of the world, exotic yet not terribly unfamiliar to palates accustomed to Thai and Indian food. It's also difficult to cook, requiring hunting for hard-to-find ingredients and creating pastes and mixes before even beginning to cook. There are a handful of restaurants that serve it and its sister cuisines, Malaysian and Singaporean, but not nearly enough and, what's more important, none too close to me. For that reason I was excited to find out about the existence of Banyan Garden, a Malaysian, Singaporean and Thai restaurant, in Adam Paul's restaurant guide and to find out that the Mercury News gave it a good review. So one Monday evening in March 2005, when our wonderful friend Regina agreed to babysit Camila, we headed to the restaurant.
Banyan Garden is located in a strip mall next to a bunch of other Asian restaurants. It doesn't look like much from the outside, but inside it's stylishly decorated, with darkly painted walls and large, relaxing bamboo art. The decorator did a good job of catering to modern design trends while adding an ethnic twist to them. The result is a comfortable and somewhat hip atmosphere. We were also taken by the bamboo-style flatware.
Banyan Garden's menu is quite extensive with eight appetizers ($2.50-7), two salads ($4.50-5.50), 7 soups ($7 small, $10 large), 20 noodle and rice dishes ($7-8), 13 vegetable dishes ($7.50-10), 13 meat dishes ($8 to 12) and a whopping 33 seafood dishes ($11-15). They also have a "curry mix and match" ($7.50-12) that gives you the choice of picking one of eight vegetables or meats and one of three sauces.
For our first visit, we decided to order some old favorites. We started with an order of Roti Murtabak ($4.50), an "Indian flat bread layered with a mixture of beef and onion, served with a curry dipping sauce." The sauce was delicious, very well balanced and just spicy enough. We weren't thrilled by the bread, however. I didn't like its texture, which was somewhat reminiscent of an omelette, and it didn't have any flavor by itself. It was good when dipped in the curry, but almost anything dipped in that curry would have been. Next time I may try the Roti Cani ($2.50), a plain version of the above, as my problem was not as much with the bread as the stuffing.
We had wanted the Siam Shredded Beef (shredded beef sauteed in a hot and sour lemongrass sauce surrounded with broccoli - $12), but it wasn't available that evening. Instead we went for the Rendang Beef (beef cubes stewed in spiced coconut milk - $10) and the Padang Lamb (lamb slices in a sweet and spicy cream sauce - $10). We also got rice for two for $2).
We liked both dishes. The large chunks of beef were extremely tender and not as fatty as one would expect. The sauce was satisfying and well-balanced, though less spicy and with more subtle flavors than I might have liked. Still, I would definitely order it again. I was less fond of the thin slices of lamb, stewed with eggplant, green beans, lemon grass and another vegetable I couldn't identify. The lamb was tender but had the texture of artificially tenderized meat. The sauce was also well balanced, though not at all spicy, and accentuated the lamby taste of the meat. I was happy to eat it (and the leftovers) but I don't think I would order it again.
Banyan Garden's desert list includes stuffed pancakes, fritters, and a couple of more unusual choices (mango sticky rice and a dish of sweet potatoes cooked in coconut milk and tapioca). We decided to be mildly adventurous and got the Nutty Pancake, "a Malaysian crepe filled with ground peanuts, sugar and sweet corn, topped with whipped cream and chocolate sauce." The crepe turned out to be the same bread that we had for the appetizer, this time stuffed with peanuts and whole kernels of corn. It was interesting and I sort of liked it. I'm not a big fan of corn, and this desert didn't convert me, but I did like the taste of the sweetened peanuts in the bread, and the scant chocolate sauce was great. The scoop of coconut ice cream was very refreshing. I don't think I'd order it again, but I'm glad I tried it.
All portions were very generous, and we had leftovers of both the meat and lamb to take home (they made a great lunch for one today). I had a coke with dinner ($1.50 for a can) and Mike just had water. Service was good and friendly. They have high chairs and booster seats, and there were a baby and a young child when we were there, but the restaurant is not loud enough to accommodate a crying child. It's also a little too crowded for a toddler who can't stay in his seat. Dinner came to $34 before tax and tip and credit cards are accepted.
Update 05/05: We went to Banyan Garden for dinner with friends in May 2005. Everything was good. The Roti Canai ($2.50) was a very light, thin, flaky and somewhat chewy flat bread (thinner and lighter than a crepe). We all liked it, and I once again was won over by the spicy curry dipping sauce. The chicken satay ($5.50) was also a winner, with nicely marinated chicken chunks and a spicy, chunky peanut sauce. The mango chicken ($8) was served on two hollowed mango shells and consisted of chicken pieces and slices of mango and red and green bell peppers in a sweet and sour tomato sauce. The sauce tasted fruity rather than tomatoish and was nicely spiced and quite good. The mango slices were too crunchy for my taste, however; they didn't seem ripe enough. The sizzling beef ($12) was sizzling and spicy and quite good with the accompanying black pepper sauce. The thin slices were tender though in that pounded sort of way. The padang lamb ($10) tasted just the same as last time and the Malaysian short ribs ($9) also had that pounded consistency but were enjoyable. Service was good and the place busy and loud enough that our two preschoolers and two babies weren't too disruptive to other patrons.
1771 Decoto Road
Union City, CA
Su-Th: 11 am - 11 pm
F-Sa: 11 am - 11:30 pm