Following on from my random rant the other day about not liking inconsiderate people, I also hate disrespectful people. I feel like I get it from waitresses and shop assistants a lot. I go to Selfridges a lot to get gelato and wander round the food hall to look at all their amazing food and eat their free samples. But sometimes I wander into the designer section and some of the shop assistants just look at me like ‘what are you doing here?’ Has anyone ever had the experience of walking into an expensive shop and felt like they’ve been looked down on!? I’ll admit I probably don’t help myself by the fact that I look 12 (yay!) and that I always dress for comfort when I go into London (and all the time.. I live in leggings and baggy tops when I don’t have to be at work!) but that’s beside the point – I just think it’s an unnecessary judgement to make. That works both ways of course – Ive been to restaurants when I’ve seen people look down on waiters/waitresses and order them around in a manner that is nothing short of utterly cringeworthy. Or people who are rude or disrespectful to cleaners in public places. Why!? Everyone is human, whether they’re tall, short, fat, thin and regardless of their job spec or the amount of money in their bank account. Personally I think cleaners deserve a medal.. I’ve seen some horrific sights in public toilets and if I had to tidy that up and I got mocked then I’d probably cry! Anyway.. completely random and irrelevant mini rant over and onto the food 🙂
BAO is a small place in Soho serving steamed milk buns and other Taiwanese bites. I’ve got to admit, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It’s had raving reviews, is always busy (though that may partly be due to the fact that they only have 32 seats in their tiny venue) and I’d never had a bao before. Just a warning before I continue – be prepared to queue! And don’t get excited if it looks like there’s no wait – the queue is on the other side of the street.
We went at 9pm, and I think we got lucky – the line wasn’t horrendously long and we only had to wait around 30 minutes. I’ve heard that people queue for well over an hour, and even when we left the queue was still going strong. Due to the size of the place, if you’re in a small group of two or three, sometimes you can cut the queue slightly while larger groups wait for a bigger table.
It’s very small, and pretty crowded. You have to sit on some poor diner’s lap to queue for their toilet and eat with coats flapping in your face if you’re by the wall which has oddly positioned coat pegs. I’m not sure if I’m stereotyping but it’s what I would imagine a typical Asian dining experience to be like, and it isn’t dissimilar to the restaurants in China Town where you get little stools at little tables, decor is minimal and so is the space. That didn’t bother me as it’s just a different type of dining – I clearly wasn’t expecting a fine-dining experience as BAO operates a very fast-food style service.. but at non fast food prices!! You’re presented with a paper slip when you sit down, it has a list of all of the dishes available and you simply write the quantity of each dish that you’d like, and they cross them off as they arrive. There’s enough choice without it being overwhelming, I’d imagine that most people opt to try one of everything.. though I gave the pig blood cake a miss. Much as I like to try new things, anything offal or offal-related is firmly off the cards for me.
Due to my lack of experience with Asian food I’d never had a bao before so I can’t compare the quality to other places, but speaking to other diners and based on the sheer size of the queue (and the length of time people were willing to wait) speaks for itself. The buns were like soft little pillows. They’re the most inviting thing – cute, soft, milky white and just so prod-able (they totally spring back for anyone who like me feels an unbearable need to prod any soft bread item!) They were ridiculously soft and light, so fluffy and delicious that I could have eaten them on their own.
We tried all of the flavours and each one was incredible in it’s own way – each had a unique sauce, filling and topping. There were four meat options – the buns were filled with soft, tender meat, a perfectly flavoured sauce and toppings which complimented the dish perfectly. My favourite was the pork confit with a lovely tangy sauce and crispy shallots. I’m not usually a fan of pork belly as the texture of fat can be dreadful, but this was cooked to perfection 🙂
The lamb came with a beautifully bright green coriander sauce. Beware if you’re vegetarian though as there is only one veggie option – daikon. It was delicious though – almost like a fried potato patty with pickled daikon on top. The crispiness of the patty complimented the soft milk bun perfectly, thought it could’ve done with more than a single slice of daikon on top. I would recommend trying all of them since that’s what they’re famous for. At 4 – 5 pounds each they’re expensive, and given that they’re different and each one has a few elements and beautiful soft meat I can (kind of) get on board with the price. Even though I am paying about 2 pounds a bite.
The small plates I cannot get on board with. We got a selection and they were very overpriced and very average. The special was shrimp.. I know that seafood is expensive but at six pounds it was about a pound a shrimp, and by the time I’d peeled the shell off I had the tiniest sliver of flesh. The aubergine dip was pricey at 3.50 too, and it was too salty, served with some overly greasy wonton crisps for dipping, which ironically snapped when dipped. It was almost four pounds for a solitary scallop. And the same again for a lemon and lime drink which was little more than a lime cordial (ruined by a salt crust round the rim which absolutely did not work).. mouthful of salt – no thank you 🙂
The pot of tea was also tiny. And when I say tiny, I mean tiny. It was served in a tea set so small that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a doll’s house. The tea cup was little bigger than my index finger, and the tea pot provided two solitary cups of tea, i.e. about two gulps. Considering that most Asian restaurants offer unlimited tea refills for about fifty pence per person, and they’re not going for any sort of refined/fine-dining experience, I can’t think of a single good reason why the tea would’ve been served in such microscopic portions.
My overall verdict is that the baos are good, very good – there’s no denying it, but the small plates are seriously overpriced. I’d probably say it’s better to go for a snack. I know that I have a big appetite but I left feeling hungry, and having spent fifty pounds at a tiny fast-food style restaurant, I’d have expected to leave stuffed. Due to the size of the place, the staff understandably want to turn the tables around fast, which I totally understand, but that is something else that makes the hefty price tag a little hard to swallow. It’s London, Londoner’s love to queue and Londoner’s expect to queue especially for a popular restaurant that doesn’t take bookings. I’d advise going at a ‘less popular time’ – if such a time exists – possibly just before they open at 12 or 5.30 – it’s good but I wouldn’t personally queue for more than about 45 minutes, and I certainly wouldn’t queue for hours. Or go to their stall at Netil Market.. Lucky Chip burgers, Victoria Yum Cakes and Morty and Bob’s grilled cheese are also there so there’s plenty of other good food to be had with your baos there 🙂
They don’t have a dessert menu – just one sweet bao but I decided to head out for dessert – I got some macaroons and I also tried a coconut topped Chinese bun for the first time that day from one of the local bakeries in nearby China Town. That too was soft, light and fluffy. It seems to be a common theme that Asian bakeries create incredibly light breads with a variety of fillings, and it made me wonder what the steamed milk buns are like at other restaurants. I know that there’s a place called Mr. Bao somewhere further out of London, and some of the famous Japanese restaurants such as Shoyru Ramen serve them, so I hope to try some others for comparison at some point 🙂
I’ve since been to China and tried several other Asian dishes (I’m on a roll for me.. 😛 ) including dumplings, more steamed buns and what feels like several thousand bakery items. They were all soft and delicious and I’ll do a post on my trip there soon, but I have to say none of the steamed buns were softer than these little pillows at BAO! 🙂
Would I recommend it? Yes
Worth going out of your way for? Yes
Would I go back? Maybe.. for lunch or a small bite from their stall at Netil Market!
Link to their website: http://baolondon.com