The bay leaf's significance is twofold:
In the modern era, it's a culinary resource, and in mythological times, it was a lucky herb. In ancient Greece, fans crowned victorious athletes with bay-leaf garlands. The menu of Southeast Division Street's Bay Leaf restaurant was created with a similar intention—to promote healthful prowess.
Bay Leaf's owners (and New York Chinese restaurant vets), Paul and Shannon Wang designed this vegetarian stronghold to provide patrons with a positive environment. And its well-spaced tables and sea-green walls do elicit relaxation with a cup of Pu-erh, an earthy, reddish-brown tea. The menu is extensive, with entrees ranging in style from satay to stir fry and hot pot—without a single dish over $10.
A hit starter: a snappy papaya salad ($4.95) with just enough crushed peanut and a taut, vinegary dressing. Misses: gluey vegetable dumplings ($6.95) and unpleasantly warm lettuce wraps ($5.95), a mix of indiscernible cubed vegetables and pine nuts on thin romaine leaves. On one visit, we also pounded the eponymous Bay Leaf appetizer ($6), a brilliant-green composition of steamed Chinese leek, mashed broad beans, and tofu. But on another evening the dish disappointed; it was singed on the outside, while crystallized inside.
Mains are also uneven. The menu pimps a spicy "Green Curry Delight" ($8.95) served in a hot pot. It showed up at our table congealed, on a cold plate, in a cake-batter-sweet sauce. One will fare better with the tofu clay pot ($8.95) since it actually arrives in one, its melange of Napa cabbage, fried tofu, thread noodles, bamboo shoots and carrots simmering in a rich, cozy broth.
Bay Leaf succeeds when it uses fewer, rawer ingredients. Its seasoned spinach ($3.95) tastes fresh-picked. But a faux-meat dish, the pickled mustered [sic] veggie and pine mushroom ($5.95 lunch, $8.95 dinner) gets dumped on the plate in an unsettlingly thick pile of roughage, chunks of chili pepper and fake ham.
The best thing on the menu, for now, comes at the end of it: The volcano ice cream ($2.95) is a scoop of vanilla rolled through sweetened corn flakes, topped roughly with chocolate and booze, and set afire. It's better than you remember from old-school suburban Mexican chain restaurants.
Service is pleasant; the bigger issue is the kitchen. One dinner our spring rolls ($3) never showed, and entrees arrived before appetizers. Lunch is more serene, but food delivery remains uneven. Its delays recall a cheesy line my mother always tosses out in slow restaurants: "Ha ha, they're milking the cow out back." At Bay Leaf, I think we waited for them to build a time machine, grab some flint, and return.
With its softly Zen space and earnest meatless menu, Bay Leaf has potential to become a valued vegetarian choice in Portland as it matures. But for now, it's still teething.
Bay Leaf, 4768 SE Division St., 232-7066. Lunch and dinner 11 amÐ10 pm Monday-Saturday, noon-9:30 pm Sunday. $ Inexpensive.