A couple of weeks back, I was wondering where to take La Belle Japonaise for dinner. I had heard that Bao, a Taiwanese steamed bun stall, that used to have an outlet on Featherstone St. (before it was demolished to build the White Collar Factory), had now opened a restaurant in Soho. I had been wanting to take her for something Taiwanese for a while, but I had heard that the standards at Old Tree had slipped and, whilst Leong’s Legends is pretty decent, it isn’t necessarily the ‘real deal’.
Things did not augment well. In spite of the balmy spring evening, being forced to wait for more than half an hour did rather grate on me. Worse still, no menu was provided. How did I even know that there’d be anything I wanted? When we reached the second place in the queue, a tiny menu slip was eventually produced. My first impression was not positive -out of six different bao fillings, two were pork, one was chicken and another lamb, leaving only daikon for the vegetarians (there was a Horlicks ice cream bao for dessert). Nobody had thought to provide a seafood option. Had I seen this at the start of the queue, I would probably have turned back (there is sod-all information on their website), however we were inches from a table now.
The other sections of the menu were more promising. I noticed things with scallops, aubergines and guinea fowl (always a pleasure to see). As we were seated, huddled into a corner, on the bar, I noticed that the drinks list had a choice of three excellent teas: Oriental Beauty(£2), Ming Yue Baozhong (£2.50) and a 10-year-aged coal-baked Oolong(£3). I ordered the latter and La Belle Japonaise had, appropriately enough, the Oriental Beauty. These were carefully brewed, albeit with unfiltered tap water, and served in tiny certainly looked like pseudo-Yixing pots (the real ones are made of a purple clay, that allows the tea to breathe). Both teas were delicious, the only major let-down being that Bao does not provide multiple infusions -a real shame, since it isn’t until the second or third pot that the flavour of any of these will fully reveal itself.
At £3.50 each, the scallops in yellow bean and garlic sauce certainly weren’t cheap, but we were each presented with one fairly large, perfectly-cooked scallop, in its shell. The faint sweetness of the scallop’s flesh was offset by the rich, pungent, savoury notes of the sauce. It was truly excellent.
The sweet potato fries, coated in a light batter were worthy, but fairly unremarkable, apart from the umeboshi salt and the spicy ketchup that lifted their otherwise-bland sweetness. They did, however, provide some much-needed sustenance, amongst portions that were perhaps of overly-dainty proportions.
The daikon bao (£3.50) was far better than it sounded. Daikon, an oriental radish-like vegetable, is most commonly found as a pickle in the UK, this however, was a delightfully crisp croquette of shredded daikon, coated in panko (Japanese breadcrumbs). The ‘hot sauce’, that it came with, tasted very similar to the umeboshi salt served with the sweet potato fries. The bun itself was firm, yet fluffy (as I remember them having been in Bao‘s previous incarnation) and, despite not being very large, was quite filling.
The ‘guinea fowl chi shiang rice’ was served with salted egg yolk and pickled Chinese vegetables. Whilst I’m not going to pretend that I actually ate the egg, LBJ did (mixed-in with the other ingredients) and pronounced it to be exquisite. I very enjoyed much the contrast between the faintly greasy, woody meat of the guinea fowl and sharpness of the pickles.
Last to arrive was the crushed aubergine with fried wonton wrappers. This was basically an attempt to make a Chinese version of baba ghanoush, albeit with a few chili flakes thrown in. The dip, no matter how dubious its heritage, was rather delicious, with a decent amount of smokiness -however, I remain unconvinced about the wanton wrappers. There were nothing like enough of them, to start with, but I think that something slightly thicker and more absorbent (stale bao, maybe?) might have worked better.
The only disappointment was the fried bao with Horlicks ice cream. The ice cream was fine, Horlicks is pleasant, somewhat bland, but certainly not too sweet, as a flavour. However, deep-frying did the bun absolutely no favours, rendering it tough and actually rather difficult to eat.
I would definitely come back to Bao. Whilst I remain unconvinced that this is necessarily the restaurant that will open Londoners’ hearts to the wonders of Taiwanese cuisine, the flavours were carefully-considered and the food was creatively assembled. The room has all the comfort and atmosphere of a shoe-box, but the staff were largely-charming. I’d like to come back in a few months, once they have changed the menu around a bit, to see what else they can impress me with.