Thursday, 1 September 2016

Bao Fitzrovia

Sanbei Octopus
at Bao London

I confess I've never yet joined the queue at Bao's first restaurant on Soho's Lexington Street which opened in April 2015.  Patient I am not, and the fact the queue forms at this 'no bookings' restaurant on the opposite side of the street somehow makes it even less appealing.  I'm sure this is not a peculiarity of their choosing.  Yet I've been eating the addictive Taiwanese steamed buns from the threesome behind Bao - sister and brother Wai Ting and Shing Tat Chung and his wife Erchen Chang - for the past couple of years from their Saturday pitch on Netil Market and at the odd private event.  Originally there was their Classic Gua Bao (braised pork, ferments, coriander, and crunchy peanut), then came the Confit (Pork Belly, crispy shallots and spicy hot sauce) both once tasted, never forgotten.  The news of their plans for a second, roomier Bao in nearby Fitzrovia was very welcome to this resolute queue avoider.

OK, the first time I waited 5 minutes, but I was at the head of the queue.  The second time, around 2.15pm, three of us walked straight in.  This is the best kind of 'fast food'.  Service is sweet and efficient, the order is taken quickly and the freshly prepared food arrives soon after.  It's 'eat and go' food without any hint of feeling rushed.  

The menu is a little different depending on which Bao location you choose.  The very first thing I tasted here at the Fitrovia restaurant was Sanbei Octopus.  Juicy tentacles (not always a given with octopus), a luscious plum-like silky sauce with a hit of ginger and Thai basil and little cubes of crunchy beef fat. So good my pencil wrote a two in the box on my second visit like it had a mind of its own.

Cod Black Bao with Tomatoes, Plum Powder
at Bao London

My two visits also covered the Bao Classic, a Lamb with green sauce and soy pickled chilli, and the Cod Black.  The Cod, coated in squid ink and both ng and hot sauces, arrives in a less pillowy bun with a slightly disconcerting greyish tinge imparted by black sesame seed.  It's dramatic and fabulous.    A dish of different coloured Tomatoes showered in Plum Powder made, at this perfect time of year for tomatoes, the best juicy, peppy side dish.

Mapo Aubergine
at Bao London

Of the Chi Shiang Rice Bowls, the Beef Shortrib, Marrow and Eryngii mushroom came with a Soy Cured Egg and a little bowl of beef broth to mix in to your own taste.  The thinly sliced beef was tender, the rice the perfect consistency, all enriched with silky beef marrow, and I loved it.   A bowl of Mapo Aubergine was probably the best treatment of aubergine I've ever come across (a difficult fruit to make interesting, I think, but maybe that's just me) caramelised and silkily-sauced.  The rice here was a little too sticky for my taste but the big flavours of chilli and coriander, both fresh and pounded into a green sauce, made for a very good vegetarian bowlful.  A small bowl of XO Sweetcorn with Beef Butter was a sweet, savoury delight.

Puddings, at this point, come in the form of Milkshakes (sounds like there are plans to add more options).  Ordering a glass of Chocolate and Toasted Rice felt like a step back in time but it was a surprisingly good note to finish on.  I'd also recommend the Hong Yu tea sourced direct from Taiwan and served in tiny traditional tea pots and bowls.

Expect to pay around £18 a head including service for food.  Beer, wine and cocktails are available and fairly priced.  The ground floor room is flooded with light and all the seating is at a horseshoe bar plus a small window-facing section.  Downstairs is windowless and cocoon-like.  You get to see what's going on in the kitchen and there is a sharing table.

I'm sure Bao don't need to keep their little stall on Neil Market E8, but I like the fact they still pitch up there on Saturdays and that they refer to it as as their "Original Bao Bar".

If I am faced with a wait next time I find myself on Fitzrovia's Windmill Street, I suspect I may forget my aversion to queueing.

31 Windmill Street
London W1T 2JN
Mon-Sat 12-3 & 5.30-10