For adventurous eaters, fusion cuisine delivers the rule-breaking surprises that can make dining about more than sustenance. Most definitely, Saratoga’s Mint Leaf doesn’t dish up the same old, same old. Nominally an Asian fusion restaurant, Mint Leaf has a menu that seems to be a mash-up of Chinese, Japanese, Malaysian and various European and American regional foods with a healthy sprinkling of Thai cooking throughout.
In short, the food here is unique. Owner Mint Sirisawad hails from Thailand and his wife Bookhi runs the kitchen. However, Mint Leaf is no linoleum-floored, over-lighted ethnic cafe with servers who barely speak English. It’s a sexy, swanky, white-tablecloth little place decorated in red and gold with comfy silk pillows, soft music and fast but attentive servers. Happily, it’s also reasonably priced and there are adequate vegetarian choices.
Opened in 2009 and located on the quiet side of Saratoga’s quaint downtown in a former deli, Mint Leaf is most creative in a dazzling list of starters that have become a must-order for its growing fan base. Also, it doesn’t hurt that the presentations here are as artful as those found in many fancy French joints.
Take the crab and cream cheese-filled crispy wontons, presented as little packages tied with edible “string” floating on a light sauce underneath. Or the Saratoga Curry Puffs, which are curried-potato empanadas embellished with a peanut sauce and cooling cucumber salad. The same tasty peanut sauce shows up with properly crispy soft-shelled crab on the entree side as well.
Given the chef’s country of origin, the grilled chicken satay is juicy and delicious but the kitchen does just as good a job on faintly Japanese salmon rolls wrapped in seaweed with hot mustard.
Some of the pretty salads are a mix-up of diverse ingredients and cuisines but the chef pulls these elements together. Like curry-marinated grilled chicken with sun-dried tomatoes and feta cheese crowning greens tossed in pomegranate vinaigrette. Or slices of grilled New York steak with a mixture of lime-laced avocado, tomatoes, onions and cucumber. At just $12, this would be a thrifty full meal for some guests.
In the same vein is spinach salad tossed with toasted coconut, ginger and lime topped by grilled shrimp and a palate-pleasing dish called Fruitvale Tuna Tartare that pairs Asian-seasoned raw ahi with apples, avocado and mango. It is both beautiful and delish but the greasy fried wontons on the side should be missed. Even a humble carrot salad is elevated by the inclusion of crisp-cooked green beans, cashews and raisins in a garlic-lime dressing.
Mint Leaf regulars know that it’s a good idea to eat family style in order to sample more of the creative offerings, including the main courses, too — assuming dinner companions can be convinced to part with any of their delectable food. However, the prices are so reasonable — many entrees are around $16 — that generosity should reign. Even lobster tail can be had here for just $23 and is scented with lemongrass and served with egg noodles.
Two iterations of salmon are available, one kind of Japanese — grilled with ponzu sauce and feta cheese — and the other Thai, with curry sauce and avocado. One of the least-expensive seared scallop entrees in the region is found at Mint Leaf. While the scallops are on the small side, they’re properly cooked and nicely contrast with a light curry sauce and greens.
There’s plenty to please carnivores, starting with a not-very-thick but juicy rib-eye in teriyaki sauce with mashed potatoes and veggies. Done in a somewhat-sweet approach — like several dishes are here — is “blackened” pork chops topped with a sweetish tomato sauce. Tender lamb chops are wine marinated and grilled, then paired with a curry sauce, which doesn’t add much to the dish. There’s even a burger — actually, a couple of little sliders in a faintly Asian sauce — on the menu.
One of the most spectacular offerings is spicy garlic noodles with choice of protein (such as steak or prawns). Thick, rich, spice-hot and completely wonderful, these noodles fly out of the kitchen all night long for good reason. Not surprisingly, the pad Thai noodles at Mint Leaf are first rate and done in a unique way, wrapped in a thin omelet. The kitchen even up-levels ever-popular Thai iced tea, putting whipped cream on top.
With its heterogeneous menu, Mint Leaf reflects the overall ethnic diversity that has come to define the South Bay in recent decades. And our tummies are the better for it.
Mint Leaf, 14420 Big Basin Way, Saratoga, (408) 872-3763, http://www.mintleafcuisine.com
HOURS: Lunch daily, 11:30-3; dinner, Sunday-Thursday, 5-9:30; Friday-Saturday, 5-10. Reservations suggested on weekends.
PRICES: Starters: $9-12; soups and salads: $10-12; Main courses: $14-23; noodles and pasta: $12-18.