Does an average diner reach the same conclusions about restaurants as a food pro, who may get special treatment if recognised?* Guest reviewer Gizzi Erskine and olive reader Jenny Purcell compare notes on Bao restaurant.
Gizzi Erskine is a British chef, author and TV personality, who regularly runs pop-up restaurants. Her latest book Healthy Appetite is out in September.
Jenny Purcell owns her own company and lives in Weston-super-Mare. She eats out twice a week and secretly enjoys left-over Yorkshire puddings with a drizzle of raspberry vinegar.
Bao began life as a tiny bar in Hackney, selling pillowy soft ‘baos’ (steamed milk buns) stuffed with various fillings. Following its success, the team have now opened a restaurant in Soho. Husband and wife team, Shing Tat Chung and Erchen Chang, alongside Shing’s sister Wai Ting Chung are behind the venture, and it was the trio’s travels across Asia that inspired the menu.Their signature bao take centre stage – try classic braised pork and panko-crumbed daikon radish bao, priced between £3.50 and £6 – but there’s also xiao chi (small eats) on offer. As for drinks, expect hot oolong and cold foam tea, plus cider, sake and whisky. It’s a cosy space with shelves lined with homemade pickles
– including golden kimchi. baolondon.com
I’ve queued for Bao before at their Hackney bar, so I didn’t mind queuing for them again – even though it took 25 minutes to get a seat (they won’t let you in until your whole party has arrived). They recognised me straight away* and sent over a complimentary cold brewed tea with a whipped cream top – it was pretty weird, even for me!
We were greeted enthusiastically in the queue outside, given a menu and advised the wait wouldn’t be long. The manager seated us 20 minutes later on stools by the window. Her knowledge of the menu was impressive, from recommending varieties of sake to the fermentation of century egg. Tap water was provided, although a refill was forgotten.
It’s a sharing concept, with a recommended 3/4 dishes per person. The menu is small and everything but the century eggs (eggs that have been left to cure and ferment in salt until the whites turn transparent and the yolks crumbly) looks fantastic. Nothing is more than £6, and baos are around the £5 mark – great value, in my opinion.
Our first xiao chi dish was a caramelised scallop, still spongy in the middle, served with a yellow bean and garlic sauce that you slurp out of the shell – a strong start. Next, crispy trotter nuggets with a fatty, porky centre, and a pig blood cake studded with rice and spice. The latter is topped with an egg yolk that’s been cured in vintage soy sauce – I thought I’d love it, but it was too salty. Fried chicken came with a chilli sauce that stung my lips.
As for the bao, they were light, like puffs of air – classic braised pork was a massive win, the sweetness being offset by tangy greens and crunchy peanuts. The confit pork belly was the easiest of them all to eat, drenched as it was in pork sauce, hot sauce and crispy dried shallots. I was stuffed to the gills by leaving time, so bypassed the fried Horlicks ice cream bao – a decision I regret now, but I’ll try it next time.
The menu at Bao is made up of six steamed, pillowy soft, white bao (buns) – including one vegetarian and one sweet option – are offered to diners, alongside various ciao chi (small eats).
The classic bao, filled with tender braised pork, had a delicious nuttiness from the smothering of peanut powder, but the fermented greens it came with weren’t as punchy as they should have been. Similarly, lamb bao was filled with lacklustre garlic mayo and jalapeños with no heat, while the confit pork bao tasted only of dried shallot. But our fried chicken was a winner – the Szechuan mayo and golden kimchi combined with the juicy chicken made for an explosion of flavour, all inside a little sesame bun.
Xiao chi highlights included plump and salty scallops dressed with garlic and yellow bean; and the sticky, yolky chi shiang rice with succulent guinea fowl – even if we did have to wait 30 minutes for it. Some soggy aubergine pieces made for an uninspiring aubergine wonton. But dessert – a sweet doughnut-like bao with an slab of gooey, malt-flavoured ice cream wedged in the middle – made up for any disappointments.
The bottom line
Bao is a brilliant, original concept. We left fully loaded, without room for pudding, and the bill for two was under £60. It’s a small and minimal restaurant, with not much room for diners, but I will be back. I may even bring a more punctual friend next time.
Bill was £57.09 for two, including service
FOOD 9/10; ATMOSPHERE 6/10; SERVICE 6/10; Gizzi’s total: 21/30
Bao has a bright, canteen feel with its wooden interior and communal seating. The central bar commands much of the cramped space, but despite this there was an excited buzz on opening day. The quirky menu offers mainly good value light bites, should you be passing by, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to return, particularly as bookings aren’t taken.
Bill was £89.44 for two, including service
FOOD 7/10; ATMOSPHERE 7/10; SERVICE 7/10; Jenny’s total: 21/30
Written June 2015
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