Thursday, 13 April 2017
I have a rule that I only write about one restaurant in a group. Generally, no matter how accomplished the second or third branch is, with so many of the same dishes appearing and very often so many of the same staff being involved in all sites, there just isn't enough new material to cover. For example, all Patty & Bun are good; all Tonkotsu are good; all Wright Bros are good. All Hawksmoor and Goodman are good (man). But despite the odd variation in the menu they're all good because they have a certain core set of dishes they can produce consistently and to a high standard, and that doesn't make for particularly interesting copy.
But sometimes, rules are there to be broken. Sometimes a restaurant group comes along so profoundly different to everything that has come before, so groundbreaking in its approach to the business of eating out, that if they opened a hundred branches serving exactly the same menu I would still find enough new things to say about them in a hundred new blog posts. This has only happened twice in my time living in London. First was the Meatwagon/MeatEasy/MeatLiquor family tree, each stage of which along the way to national domination I covered with ecstatic burger-geek glee because it really was that important - an obsessive knowledge of what makes a good burger, matched with an irresistible funky dive-bar aesthetic and bolshy attitude. MeatLiquor, even its detractors must acknowledge, changed absolutely everything.
And now, there's Bao. I'm not about to make any grand predictions about how influential this pair of cool-as-a-cucumber Taiwanese snack bars will end up being; that's not my job, nor even, at this stage, is it important. But I can tell you that I feel the same about the two branches of Bao as I did about MeatWagon all those years ago - that this is a supremely talented bunch of people with the means to do exactly what they want to do, and a meal there is an experience so utterly and consistently rewarding that if it's not one of your favourite restaurants in London you haven't eaten there yet, simple as that.
The joy of Bao isn't just about the food - these things never are. The clean, modernist lines of the interiors of both branches compliment the exact, unfussy dishes served in them, to the extent that the whole operation - certainly including the smiley staff in their clean white labcoats - feels like a kind of experimental art project. I'm sure things like the "chicken chop with soy cured egg" or "beef cheek and tendon nuggets" would still taste great served under a motorway sliproad, but in these zen-like spaces they really shine.
There is not a single item on the Bao menu that you wouldn't want to eat over and over again until you did yourself an injury, so choosing a lunch for one is pure torture. I'd recommend going with at least one friend, so you can put the little mark in as many boxes on the menu as possible (the Bao ordering system is a little paper form and a pencil, meaning you can keep track of what you've ordered and - more importantly - add to it again and again when you realise what a great time you're having). But most people will probably start with the titular Bao, fluffy little bright-white rice flour buns filled with, alternatively, softly sweet pork belly, beef shortrib, umami-rich blackened cod and a nugget of breadcrumbed daikon which makes about as good a case for the vegetarian option as you could possibly imagine.
In any other restaurant I'd describe "Cep broth, duck breast" as a "must order" except such advice is going to be useless at Bao when everything is brilliant. It is an astonishingly lovely thing though, a salty, earthy mushroom consommé matched with a couple of slices of pink, gamey duck breast, and to miss out on it would be a terrible crime.
Similarly this salad of raw prawn and potato, which is full of surprising colours and textures and seasoned precisely enough that each element presented at its absolute best. I'm not normally a fan of raw prawn, so for me to want to polish off a second plate of this as soon as the first had disappeared is a real achievement.
I can't imagine a situation when you wouldn't want to order this dish of soy-cured pork loin with ginger and chives, either. Beautifully soft and sweet slices of pork, soaked in a gentle soy dressing, it's as blissful to eat as it is attractive to look upon. Another must-order.
Of course, it goes without saying that you can't eat at Bao without trying the fried chicken, one of the few non-Bao items carried over from the Soho menu. A generous supreme of chicken in a glorious bubbly crust, it comes with a remarkable cured egg yolk which acts as a kind of innovative dipping sauce. Whether this is a Taiwanese staple I was hitherto unaware of or whether this was entirely Bao's idea, it's still a very special thing.
Pork "bak kwa" turned out to be three, faintly transluscent geometrically-exact squares of dry-cured pork, served with a fruity chilli dipping sauce. Now, there may be some people out there - members of certain religions perhaps, or the terminally insane - who for whatever reason cannot enjoy squares of sweet-salty cured pork dipped in chilli sauce, but I am certainly not one of them. And so this dish is, also, unmissable.
Even the drinks are borne of true invention and an attention to detail bordering on exhausting. This pretty thing, the "Yakult float", is I think a yuzu mixture topped with a yoghurt mousse squirted out of one of those cheffy squirty canister things (no I don't know what they're called), and feels like it's doing you good as well as tasting great. So you definitely have to order that, too.
Do you really need any more reasons to visit? How about the "crispy cabbage", a brittle leaf of fried greenery with a smooth-as-silk cream dipping sauce, which explodes in the mouth with salt and vegetal flavour. Can you imagine a world in which you went for a meal at Bao and didn't order the crispy cabbage? Could you look your friends in the eye afterwards? Could you learn to live with yourself? No, thought not.
So. If everything is brilliant, as I've said (which it is), then how on earth do you choose what to order? I have no easy answer to that, except to say that in the long run it won't be a problem because I can't see anyone just visiting Bao once. This is a restaurant to worship and obsess over. Its food, unique to this location and so completely unlike anywhere else, is, without exaggeration, something approaching perfect in almost every regard, from quality of ingredients to refinement of presentation. Service is unfailingly warm and attentive, and you enjoy all this in a dining room so beautiful if it were emptied of bars, stools and customers it could be used as an art gallery.
In short, restaurants like this do not come along very often. If I'm right (and I'm usually not), then it's just a matter of time before London goes Bao-mad. It may be copied, parodied or ripped-off. Somewhere called Bun or Boa will open in Soho serving slightly wonky versions of the famous Bao dishes. There will be the inevitable backlash as people too important to queue (pro-tip: you can book downstairs at Fitzrovia) dismiss it all as a stupid hipster fad and pretend they prefer Wagamama. All these things may happen. But there will always be the original and best, doing its thing so well, being brilliant again and again.
You may notice a couple of items on my first visit were comped - that was very kind of them, so I just left an extra big tip instead. I think they deserve it, don't you?