‘Please be aware that the fries may contain some small bits of bone.’ This is not what I had expected. Closer interrogation revealed that said fries may have also contained rather large bits of duck tongue too. But then, one doesn’t go to a Chinese restaurant in search of chips, does one?
Chinese steamed buns are misunderstood little creatures. They look like they should be sweet, but more often than not, their fluffy exteriors conceal a porky secret. I remember the first time I bit into one, at a hotel buffet in Bangkok, expecting this delightful snowball to contain maybe custard or red bean paste, to be greeted by the savoury hit of char siu. I was not best pleased.
The years went by and I gradually learnt to distinguish between the different bun shapes, but once bitten-into, twice shy. So, it came as a bit of a surprise that, late one Sunday afternoon, when faced with the dismal offerings of Soho at that hour, LBJ and I stumbled across a beautifully-tiled eatery, on the site of a former Moroccan cafe. It was the verdant sheen of the celadon stools that enticed me to take a closer look. A cluster of bamboo steamers made me hopeful of dim sum, but as I my eyes met the menu, I saw the widest selection of buns in London, keenly-priced at £2.50 each. As a pescetarian, I have always had to be wary, but the presence of both ‘veg’ and ‘fish’ fillings, in addition to lamb, chicken and ‘pig’ varieties, served to reassure me. I steered well clear of the ‘Red Choc’ version, not just because of the awfulness of Communist chocolate, but because it was also made with pigs’ blood.
However, Bun House is more than a one-trick piglet: it also boasts a pretty decent variety of pickles (£2 a portion) and some judiciously-chosen ‘small plates’ (£3.80). Having already raided the discounts at the Selfridge’s Food Hall, we ordered a fish bun, some ‘fruit salad’ pickle (melon with passion fruit) and a glass noodle salad (we steered clear of the ‘fries’, in the end). We were also rather pleased to see that you could while away an afternoon, drinking Chinese tea and people-watching.
The glass noodle salad would probably have sufficed for a light lunch on its own. The firm, yet delightfully slimy, chilled noodles were doused in chilli oil, wrapped around some wok-sauteed vegetables and buried under an avalanche of sesame and coriander. It had an amphibian quality, akin to eating a salamander, I imagine.
The sweetness of the melon was tempered by the sharpness of the rice vinegar it had been pickled in, the passion fruit lending a pleasantly aromatic note to it. The bun itself was delicate yet substantial, with a satisfyingly spicy kick to it.
Drinking tea for hours on end takes its toll, so I thought I would investigate the facilities before I left. It was only then that I realised what lay below: a beautiful neo-Art Deco tea room, with an intriguing menu. The loos, by the way, are amongst the most beautiful in London.
Given its interesting menu, fair prices and late opening times, it is very hard not to like Bun House. This may well be my new go-to place for a cheap lunch or lazy afternoon snack. Despite its rather cramped interior, the airy floor-to-ceiling windows and celadon tiling make for a relaxing spot to watch the world and its madness.