Wichita restaurateurs open Bayleaf Indian Restaurant and Bar in downtown Lawrence
Nav Chawla learned how to cook from his father.
One day, watching his restaurateur dad make a chicken curry in their kitchen, Chawla wondered why his mother would, in cooking the same dish, add ingredients into the pot all at once while his father spent more time sautéing the onions.
So Chawla, now 41 and the manager of downtown’s Bayleaf Indian Restaurant and Bar, asked him.
“I learned from him that everything has its own time,” Chawla says of his father, Kuldip Singh, who owns Bayleaf and co-owns its popular sister location, Passage to India, in Wichita. “Everyone can make a chicken curry — it’s how you make it that’s important.”
Turns out, no two dishes — even those that share a recipe — taste exactly alike in Indian cuisine. Measuring isn’t a requirement, and every cook has a different style, Chawla says.
Opening Bayleaf, 947 New Hampshire St., has been a realization of a lifelong “dream” for Chawla, who picked up almost every aspect of the business (from dishwashing and waiting tables to food preparation and cooking) through his dad.
“About 95 percent” of Bayleaf’s restaurant derives from his father’s recipes, which include Indian delicacies (the family hails originally from the Punjab state) such as chicken tandoori, palak paneer, samosas and a variety of korma specialties.
“In Wichita, everyone liked tikka masala, but when we gave them the option to try new stuff, we got almost 50 percent to change to the korma curries,” Chawla says of the traditional Mughlai dish, which he says has been popular at Bayleaf since the restaurant opened last month. “It’s not a chicken tikka masala monopoly anymore.”
He thinks Lawrence customers, even those not particularly familiar with Indian cuisine, are adventurous. So far, the curious types who wander in to the restaurant (which lacks an online presence or any advertising at all) have been friendly — and showing up in numbers above Chawla’s expectations.
Part of that he owes to the month-and-a-half delay (things were “crazy busy” at the Wichita business, Chawla says) in opening Bayleaf, which he had originally told the Journal-World would be ready by the end of 2015. Nothing builds hype like the vagueness of a “coming soon” sign hanging over a storefront.
Chawla, who grew up in India and spent most of his adult life in Canada, made the move from Vancouver to Kansas about a year ago. Opting to call the new location Bayleaf instead of carrying on the Passage to India name is a nod to Chawla’s late cousin, who fulfilled a longtime wish by opening his own Bayleaf restaurant in Canada but then died just six months later.
The Lawrence restaurant, Chawla says, is the first in hopefully many expansions of his father’s business — they’re eyeing Kansas City next. “Maybe Seattle, too — my wife would love that,” he adds, smiling at the thought.
She’ll be joining him — along with their two children — in Lawrence this summer.
“This is my hometown now, and I’d like to stay for a long, long time,” Chawla says. “We’re all going to call this place home.”