After hearing Ben and Philip fantasise for months about going, I was pretty pleased with myself for making it to Bao before them. A Taiwanese steamed bun restaurant that started life as a stand at the street food collective Kerb, Bao has quickly built a reputation as one of London’s most popular restaurants, with a long queue even from its opening night.
We did have to queue, but got there early enough (by about 6:20pm) that it only lasted fifteen or twenty minutes. And, once you’re inside, Bao is very cute: densely packed into a space only slightly bigger than my bedroom, it’s all clean, neat lines of walnut tables and chairs, humming with the sound of people eating. It doesn’t seem like it’d be very accommodating for groups of more than three or four, but for two it was quite lovely.
We’d looked over the menu while we queued, and after ordering food came as it was ready, which spaced out the meal nicely.
After the little glass of ‘peanut milk’ (which just tasted just like a thin peanut-butter milkshake), first up were pigs’ trotter nuggets. These were grated portions of dark meat and fat in a crunchy breadcrumbed shell, and had a rich, deep flavour that went well with the smoky green chilli sauce they were served with. They were quite small and there were only four of them, but their deep porky flavour made them worth the asking price (£4).
Taiwanese-style fried chicken was my favourite part of the meal – they were big and chunky and their breadcrumb coating was crispy but light. I’ve had so many variations on fried chicken recently (Korean-style, Southern-style, Chicken Cottage-style) that I didn’t expect to find these very interesting but the lightness of the outside, despite being thick and crunchy, was quite remarkable. These came with a drizzle of a sauce that was sort of halfway between sriracha and sweet ketchup.
But my first bao was unimpressive. The classic’s bun was soft and fluffy and the ground peanut gave it a nice, sweet smell, but the stewed pork inside wasn’t particularly flavourful at all. It came with shredded coriander which I couldn’t really taste and the stewed texture of the pork (like a very soggy pulled pork) together with the bun just ended up tasting like a meaty mush. I liked the first bite of it, but the whole thing needed something else – a slice of one of the pickled roots that came as part of the house pickles might have given it a nice sharpness and offset the other flavours and textures a bit.
I’m sorry to say that the other bao weren’t much better either. The confit pork one, with the same sweet and spicy sauce that came with the fried chicken, was overwhelmed by the dried shallots that came with it. The lamb shoulder bao, done with garlic mayo and coriander sauce in the style of a very posh doner kebab, was the most interesting of the lot – though still not especially tasty. The fried chicken bao was fine: the same as the fried chicken we’d had earlier with some kimchi and a bun (but with considerably less chicken!).
The best bao was the crumbed daikon one – a deep-fried mash of winter radish with a slice of the pickled root that I’d craved earlier and, I was happy to see, really did elevate the other flavours.
Overall, then, Bao didn’t impress me very much. Three bao each filled us both up (even though all the portions seemed very small for the price), and at £52 for two including beers and service the bill wasn’t too painful, but I didn’t see what about Bao seems to have won so many other people over. Is it just hype? Maybe – and to spare other people a long queue in the winter cold, this may be one ‘sacred Bao’ that needs slaying.
Score: No medals. (For explanation of our scoring system, see here.)