LORI LUCAS

Vegetarian dining can be tough, because most restaurants' fare is limited to the extreme ends of the meatless spectrum. You're either standing squarely in the world of pretend flesh, eating a tofu hot dog covered in chili and cheese, or you're on the purist side, which largely involves steamed vegetables and maybe some nuts. Bay Leaf, a newish all-vegetarian/mostly vegan Asian-themed eatery on SE Division, balances the two worlds by offering thoughtful tasty fare that incorporates the best parts of meatless dining. Shifting the focus of their entrees from the meat substitute itself to the dish as a whole, creative cooking and fresh ingredients make most items on their menu shine.

Bay Leaf's appetizers are a pleasant meal by themselves. The steamed dumplings are filled with seasoned diced vegetables and browned slightly, making them irresistible. My dining partners and I also ordered mushroom crisps, which seemed slightly out of place on the entrée menu, but made for excellent starters. These deep-fried nuggets of fresh mushroom had a robust earthy flavor, enhanced with simple bay leaf and pepper, and mixing well with the tangy accompanying crispy, spicy Thai papaya salad.

Bay Leaf's entrées are served with your choice of white or mixed grain rice. I recommend the latter; its deep, nutty flavor enhances whatever it's paired with—like the pickled mustard greens with pine mushroom in a satay sauce. It's a tangy, crunchy dish cooked to eliminate the usual bitterness of mustard greens, which are further offset by the delicious mushrooms. Indeed, mushrooms abound at Bay Leaf, extending their reign into the zucchini mushroom sauté, served with imitation crab—a delicate balancing act of fresh zucchini with seaweed-infused "crab meat," a fake seafood product not as sweet as real crab, but still sufficient in its oceanic flavor.

Yam lovers will be drawn to the wild yam delight, but be warned: The Chinese wild yam is less like a North American yam than it is like a water chestnut. Served with firm baby corn and snappy snow peas, this dish is as aesthetically pleasing in its crunchy texture as it is gently flavorful. When ordering, don't forget to inquire about the specials. The night we dined at Bay Leaf, a tender spring asparagus dish was served with an assortment of vegetables drizzled in a soy-based sauce.

Bay Leaf's penchant for serving their dishes mild and unencumbered by overpowering strong-tasting sauces may leave some people grasping for the Sriracha or soy sauce. It had the opposite effect on me. I rather enjoyed the accentuation of the ingredients, their natural flavors coaxed subtly forth by the spice rack as opposed to being drowned. Only diners who wish to walk on the fiery side of Asian cuisine will have a hard time at Bay Leaf. The plates denoted as "spicy" on the menu utilize whole hot peppers, which are spread unevenly throughout, resulting in a chewing experience that fluctuates between mouth burning and pretty bland. A general spicy coating of the entire dish is preferable, though this inconvenience is slight considering how many things Bay Leaf does well. Professional presentation; fresh, noteworthy ingredients; and a clean, uncomplicated dining area make Bay Leaf my current favorite choice in classy, yet unpretentious vegetarian fare.