I had a lot of different feelings about Bao: excitement about trying it; anxiety about the queue; anger whilst I was in the queue not to mention soaked to the bone (it was pouring); relief at being given a table and finally satisfaction and delight.
The anger I felt in the queue was not due to the fact that I was in a queue. Mind you, the beast is always willing to queue for good food- 30 minutes, an hour, 2 hours, 3 hours, wotevs. It was more the fact that the queue itself is across the street from the restaurant, not next to it, or alongside it, and everyone looks just as pathetic and desperate as the person in front of them and behind them while gazing sadly into the windows across the street silently pleading with their eyes “please let me in.” The staff at the restaurant occassionally peer out at you and then go back to clanking around. You feel exposed and vulnerable, standing on an open street sidewalk without so much as an awning to rest under. It’s like that nightmare you have when you’re a child and you dream you’re in the school cafeteria and everyone is laughing and pointing at you and you look down and realise it’s because you are totally naked. Okay, this is nothing like that but still, vulnerability. And the people walking by are totally judging you.
I am also going to add at this point I was going to be dining by myself, which still hasn’t been totally accepted in London yet (such a shame for us independent souls) and I had to wave off the maitre d’s surprised expression when he looked at me and said table for 2 and I said no just one. Oh the pity.
It all paid off though and I got an awesome spacious seat, tucked away in the corner (that’s where they like to hide the solitary people) where I could see everything happening in the kitchen and I was left to my own devices i.e. photographing everything with my SLR and my iPhone.
The menu was as Ed Cummings called it in his review of Bao in The Telegraph, a “glutton’s betting slip”. You receive a little paper list of nine starter-like xiao chi where you can order dishes such as Pig Blood Cake and Trotter Nuggets; six of the famous bao (steamed white buns, filled with various delicacies) and four sides. Nothing is more than £6. GLORIOUS.
And oh the tea. The tea is amazing. Either it was because I waited outside in the rain for 30 minutes with no umbrella or because they put crack in those gorgeous little teapots, regardless of the reason, the Oriental Beauty tea with honey and floral notes was bang on the money.
In the name of professional research the beast took it upon herself to order the classic bao and the confit pork bao, along with the Taiwanese fried chicken with hot sauce.
Steamed buns are just the friendliest food on the planet — they’re warm, pillowy-soft and just so damn fluffy. Bao’s classic — a soft snowy white bun filled with slow-braised pork, coarse peanut powder, and freshly chopped coriander (cilantro) did not disappoint.
The conft pork belly bao was a tad bit too fatty for my taste but the hot sauce and crispy shallots, more like skinny onion rings, make up for the texture of the pork.
If you like fried chicken (so I am referring to everyone), this version (£5) is absolutely amazing – the coating seems to have both crisp and crumbly textures and is drenched in a fiery sauce. The meat – both thigh and breast in four-piece portion – is as Lisa Markwell says “obviously from a decent bird”.
The affordability of Bao makes it so you can take a chance on those eyebrow-raise inducing dishes and not be disappointed if you hate them. Some dishes couldn’t tempt me though such as the Fried Horlicks ice cream bao (it’s just weirdness for the sake of being weird and not appealing to anyone’s tastebuds).
My journalist hero Jay Rayner recently wrote in his piece “Jay Rayner v. Instagram’s top dishes” that the classic bao wasn’t worth queueing for. That may or may not be true but the Taiwanese fried chicken (which I’m guessing was not one of the most Instagrammed dishes in 2015 as it wasn’t mentioned in the article) is 100% worth queuing for. I would also gladly return to try out the scallop with yellow bean garlic and take a swig of the £1.50 peanut milk.
Address: 53 Lexington St, London W1F 9AS