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Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2004 06:25 am

Turning over a new leaf

It's not every day that a new ethnic restaurant covers as much ground as Banana Leaf Asian Cuisine and Noodles does. The eatery, which opened in the Town and Country Shopping Center in early October, features a wide variety of Asian food: Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Indonesian, Malaysian, Korean, and Singaporean. The menu gives the national origin of each dish and explains how it's prepared.

Not only does the restaurant try to cover many ways of preparing Asian food, but, from my first impression, it also does it well. Appetizers include everything from basic options such as egg, spring, and summer rolls and crab Rangoon to the more adventurous chasiu (barbecue pork, a chef's specialty). A word of warning to those familiar with the peanut sauce served with egg rolls at other local Thai restaurants: The sauce served here is thick and creamy, more like peanut butter than sauce.

We tried the curry puffs, small fried triangles of potatoes, onions, garlic, and chicken served with a sweet sauce. The melding of flavors inside the pastry packets reminded me a bit of Indian cuisine and provided a delicious start to our meal.

The Banana Leaf offers an interesting and varied array of entrées, including dishes featuring noodles, fried rice, curry and chile paste; house specials; and Chinese food. The menu also features "big noodle bowls," which are soups featuring such fabulous blends of ingredients as seafood with lemongrass and lime leaves and barbecue pork and bean-paste broth. The bowls, which are large enough to be shared by two people, can be ordered with chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, or squid.

Menu highlights include the scorching Volcano King Prawns, served with chile and oyster sauce; basil-chile paste with seafood, a blend of seafood stir-fried with chile paste, basil, jalapeños, garlic, onions, and celery; and the milder yakiudon, a dish of Japanese udon noodles and mixed vegetables. I tested the heat-level chart by ordering the yakiudon"mild-plus." Although the broccoli, baby corn, and snow peas were fresh and crisp, the sauce proved a little bland for my taste. We also tried the pineapple fried rice, ordered medium-hot with chicken; it turned out to be a superb blend of sweet pineapple chunks, cashews, white and green onions, and tomatoes in the house special sauce -- one of the most interesting fried-rice dishes I've had.

The restaurant, which has several sister locations in the Dallas area, is owned by Karam Singh of Springfield and Michelle Law of Dallas.

The service was fast and friendly. Our waiter was more than helpful, explaining dishes and suggesting his favorites, among them the unique pan-fried noodles, mixed vegetables served over crispy noodles.(In fact, we overheard a nearby diner exclaim with delight on learning that she could finally get pan-fried noodles in Springfield. The waiter claimed that the Banana Leaf is the only Asian restaurant in town to prepare noodles in this way.) Most dishes are under $7.50; the most expensive item on the menu is spicy king prawns for $12.95.

A limited lunch menu is available, featuring dishes served with fried rice and soup for $4.99.

I will definitely pay the Banana Leaf another visit. There's a large, steaming bowl of spicy coconut soup with galanga herbs, citrus leaves, lemongrass, mushrooms, shrimp, and noodles with my name on it.

Banana Leaf is located at 2433 S. MacArthur Blvd.; 217-698-8760. Lunch hours: 11 a.m.- 2 p.m. and 4:30-9:30 p.m. Mon.-Sat. and noon-8 p.m. Sun. Carryout is available.

New eats

In addition to Banana Leaf Asian Cuisine and Noodles, several other new local restaurants have opened recently. They include:

• Higgie's, located off Illinois Route 29 in Athens. The restaurant, open 6 a.m.-9 p.m. daily, offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Carryout is available. Call 217-636-8630.

• McShane's Restaurant, 131 E. Reynolds St., is open again for business with a menu of home-style cooking. Hours are 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon.-Sat. and 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Sun. Call 217-528-4423.

• Carlos O'Kelly's Mexican Café, a Wichita, Kan.-based chain, has opened a location at 2500 Sunrise Ave. The restaurant is open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun.-Thu. and 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri. and Sat. Carryout is available. Call 217-544-4650.

Sample fruit of the vine

Green View Nursery, located at 3000 W. Jefferson St., is hosting a wine tasting 1-3 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 13.

The free event features wines from Vahling Vineyard, a family-owned business in Stewardson.

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