Thursday, 9 April 2015
A reliable feature of the very best restaurants is when you first glance at the menu and want to order every single last thing. Perhaps only at Lockhart, in recent memory, have I seen a menu so comprehensively attractive as that at Bao, whose expertly-pitched offerings of Taiwanese appetisers and steamed buns, paired with a short list of interesting beers, ciders and sake, contains absolutely no filler, no token vegetarian options or timid crowdpleasing carbohydrates. It is a love letter to food, or perhaps more specifically a love letter to foodies - pig blood cake, trotter nuggets, eryngii mushroom with century egg, guinea fowl Chi Shiang rice; bold and brilliant, flattering its audience with unusual ingredients and daring you to try something new.
Unlike the Lockhart, though, where to satisfy your desire to try the whole menu you'd need a party of at least 8, at Bao the dishes are so keenly priced and the portion sizes so sensible that just two people could almost work their way through the whole lot. I didn't quite - sadly - manage this last night but it's only a matter of time before I do, because believe me, this isn't the kind of place you visit just once.
Ordering is done via putting numbers next to a little printout of the menu, "like in Argos" as my friend pointed out. This means that if you're in a rush and want to order everything at once you can, or if you want to split up your meal into stages you can just come back and order more later. It's a good system. We started with eryngii mushroom with century egg, wich punched way above its weight with a rich umami hit of soy and mushroom, the chunks of jellied egg filling out the flavour and texture. This remained one of our favourite dishes of the night, and not just because (well, at least not only because) we were so ravenously hungry when it arrived.
Next, a huge meaty scallop in yellow bean garlic sauce. Perfectly cooked with a lovely golden crust yet just-so inside, it was clearly a very high quality bit of seafood, treated very well. But the yellow bean sauce was a revelation - distantly familiar from Chinese takeaways past, yet luxurious and refined. It had a marvellous smoky, silky texture and really enhanced the seafood.
Not for Bao anything as humdrum as fried potato. Sweet potato chips were best described as tempura, with a light white batter on each neat little stick of vegetable, and dressed with a soft, fruity 'plum pickle salt'.
You'd expect the buns themselves, which after all made Bao their enviable name on the street food scene, to be worth the trip alone. My own "classic" was every bit as good as I remember from Kerb at the Bussey building in Peckham, and all the better in fact for not having to eat them standing up with a on open bottle of beer in my shirt pocket.
And I didn't get to try the vegetarian daikon option but from what I can gather, that was pretty bloody impressive too. In fact I'm told that the daikon bun is their best seller so far. I'll just have to go back and see what the fuss is about.
40-day aged rump cap from Warrens butchers in Cornwall (the very best butchers in the country, in case you hadn't heard of them) was never likely to disappoint. But dressed in a special aged white soy sauce imported specially from Taiwan, it was lifted onto another level, the fat from the beef combining with soy to produce a particularly astonishing flavour. Describing exactly why the effect was so impressive may be beyond me, but it was as if the soy made the beef more beefy, highlighting yet refining all of the funky notes from the meat.
Aubergine, served with wonton had a great spicy flavour but there's something about the texture of aubergine that I find a bit disorienting. Still, the wontons were fun and it was at least something I'd not had before.
Desserts were no kind of afterthought. Peanut milk was a refreshing shot of, well, peanutty milk, a bit like the bottom of a bowl of Crunchy Nut Cornflakes but absolutely non the worse for that.
And Fried Horlicks ice cream bao? Gorgeous smooth, malty ice cream inside what if I didn't know better I would assume to be a kind of doughnut/brioche hybrid but was - I'm told - some kind of fried version of the normal steamed bao buns. Very clever stuff, either way - another highlight amongst highlights.
We had two beers each, three authentically-inoffensive Taiwan beers and one from Austria just to see what the difference was. Objectively the Austrian beer was better, but weirdly the more bland Taiwan style worked better with the food. I'm sure that was entirely deliberate.
Service was never less than brilliant but there did seem to be more than enough staff for the tiny room. Our seat at the bar gave us the opportunity to engage with the guy serving up sake in little metal teapots and made it incredibly easy to set our own pace through the menu. Maybe if you were sat on a bench near the kitchen or next to the loos you wouldn't think the room was quite so comfortable, but for £30 a head for such creative and exciting food that is largely unique in the capital, I'd put up with far worse.
The only niggling worry is that Bao is already looking like it may be a victim of its own success. Last night, on opening night no less, the queue stretched down the street. So space at this bright and bold little spot on Lexington Street may always be as rare as guinea fowl teeth. But surely - surely you're used to this kind of thing by now. Get there early, and get there soon. Bao is an absolute cracker.
Beaten by the queues at Bao and want to know where else is good? Where to Eat London 2015, my guide to only the very best restaurants London has to offer, is available on the App Store right now for £2.99. Photos by Hannah.