Bao’s Soho branch was the first place I reviewed for Straight Up London and, unlike everyone else, I didn’t think too much of it. The queue was ludicrously long and the food just wasn’t that interesting.
Still, my girlfriend liked it and now that Bao has opened a second branch in Fitzrovia she wanted to go. The room is bigger and airier, with diner seated around a horseshoe-shaped bar looking out onto a quiet side-street. It’s very pleasant, and makes me feel as if I’m in Japan (though Bao is Taiwanese).
Bao’s menu is divided into three stages. Xiao chi (small eats) come first, then the bao, then the chi shiang rice bowls to fill you up at the end. You can also buy a £27 “limited edition” t-shirt if you like wasting money.
Sweetcorn with “beef butter” was surprisingly delicious. The beef butter made the corn taste rich, savoury and meaty, and I gobbled it down. The prawn heads had been deep-fried to a crisp, and each bite was a burst of oily, fishy goodness. At £2 they felt like excellent value and I was tempted to order a second bowl.
Beef cheek and tendon nuggets were similar in principle to the Soho Bao’s pig trotter nuggets, but inside had big, half-melting chunks of tendon, which tastes halfway between fat and a very thick jelly with a meaty taste. The beef cheek would have been a little overpoweringly beefy if not for the acidity of the green chilli sauce they came with, which was literally finger-lickin’ good.
Our final small plate was duck hearts with chilli garlic sauce, which came sliced in half with a warm onion marmalade, spring onions and coriander on top. They were unbelievably tender and each one pretty much melted in your mouth as you ate them. The balance of the sweet marmalade and garlic sauce against the fresh sharpness of the onions and coriander was perfect. This was truly one of the nicest meat dishes I have had, up there with Silk Road’s barbecued lamb skewers for sheer pleasure.
Then came the bao, which after all this I was excited for. But, alas, they were basically the same as last time. Not bad, exactly, but just very boring. My pork confit bao’s fried onions went nicely with the sweet hot sauce and sliced of pork belly, but ultimately it all ended up tasting a bit too sweet and cloying. The buns themselves were fluffy and pillowy, but weren’t that special.
The ‘classic’ bao was better with a nice little heap of ground peanuts on top of warm preserved vegetables and bits of braised pork, but still didn’t really do much in the way of flavour. No doubt bao are a subtle dish that is lost on me, but I really don’t see the attraction, especially for £4-4.50 each. The lamb bao (not pictured) was much better, because the meat actually had a distinct flavour, and came with a fresh minty sauce.
We shared a rice bowl to finish, which was probably a mistake – it’s too awkward to share really. It was comfort food, with some small but thick slices of beef shortrib, an egg yolk and some beef ‘tea’ to pour over. Again, not very excitingly flavoured but the beef tea and egg stuck to fat grains of sushi rice and made it quite a nice way to end the meal. I wouldn’t mind a cheaper version with just the beef tea and the egg, though – the point is to fill up, and the other parts of the dish were unnecessary.
All told the bill came to £28 per head, which was not exactly cheap but didn’t feel like a rip-off given the variety of what we had, and the quality of some of it. Drinks are priced fairly extortionately, though – £4.50 is an absurd price for half a pint of Kernel table beer, as is £8 (!) for a 600ml bottle of Taiwan beer (I had a £4.50 stubbie can instead).
Overall my impression of Bao has changed a little. The bao themselves are still too bland and unremarkable to bother with, but the side plates are something else altogether. Bone Daddies opened Shakfuyu as a branch to sell its side plates on their own, which is certainly something Bao’s owners should consider. If I ever go back, I’ll stick with the prawn heads and duck hearts. Basically, Bao is great – if you skip the bao.
Rating: One medal (Two for the side plates, none for the bao).