BAO, 53 Lexington Street, London W1
From street food vendor to hot new restaurant overnight: this is the story of Bao. I first came across Bao at KerbKX, a street food market next to Kings Cross train station in Central London. I was wandering around looking for something to eat when I stumbled across a brother and sister duo, avidly putting together tasty morsels of wonderfulness and flogging them to city slickers like myself for a couple of quid. It was the best lunch I had had in a long time and I soon became a regular. The problem was that they got too popular but let me explain to you why.
The dish they were serving was a traditional Taiwanese Bao. A bao is a fluffy white steamed bun (usually made with milk) and in this case filled with braised pork, sprinkled with peanut powder and shredded coriander and fermented greens. These are now the “Classic Bao” on their exciting new restaurant menu.
I had naively thought that Bao was one of my well kept secrets. So when I saw on twitter that they were opening a restaurant I had presumed it wouldn’t be all that difficult to get a table. Until I found out you couldn’t book and it was only big enough to hold 20 or so people… Not one for queuing I let the buzz die down and eventually went for lunch at the end of May. Lunch was fantastic. It was all I could hope for and more. The menu includes six bao, three sides and three oolong teas, sakes, ciders and beers. I went for the oriental beauty oolong tea while Jon went for the Taiwan Gold Medal beer. We ticked our choices off of the little ordering menus and waited.
Here’s what I ate (with the help of Jon of course):
- Eryngii Mushroom, Century Egg (v);
- House Pickles (v);
- Turnip Tops, Salted Egg (v)
- Guinea Fowl Chi Shiang Rice;
- Classic Bao;
- Confit Pork Bao (confit pork belly with pork sauce, hot sauce and dried shallots); and
- Crumbed Daikon Bao (panko crumbed daikon with daikon pickle, hot sauce and coriander) (v).
With not a single dish priced over £6 you can justifiably order half the menu, if not more!
The Eryngii Mushroom, Century Egg was our wild card. Not familiar with fermented egg we weren’t entirely sure we would like it. We’d had a cheeky google before we came so that we would know what to expect but it was better than we could have thought! The dish packs a real rich umami hit, the soy adding a welcome saltiness and the chunks of jellied egg bring round the texture of the dish. Jon loved this and was annoyed he’d had to share one of the vegetarian options with me.
I also had the Guinea Fowl Chi Shiang Rice. I was happy that I wasn’t going to have to share this one. The “authentic” way to eat this is to break the glossy egg yolk and stir it into the rice. This beautifully coated everything in the bowl and as a result slipped down all too easily. It was rich, but I could’ve eaten more.
The Classic Bao was exactly as I remembered. They haven’t compromise on quality or taste since becoming a restaurant – and rightly so. The pillowy buns were warm and comforting as ever. I polished this off quickly and moved on to my next. The Confit Pork Bao was unsurprisingly delicious. By this point the small plates were however starting to sit a little heavy. The dishes are almost all sticky, soft, rich and packed full of umami and I had to drink plenty of tea to wash it down. Whilst I would have loved to have ordered the whole menu this was only meant to be a light lunch and I was starting to feel full.
Next out of the kitchen was Jon’s Daikon Bao. Daikon is a type of radish which they deep fry to perfection before topping with daikon pickle, hot sauce and coriander. Whilst I tried my best to convince Jon that we should order the Fried Horlicks Ice Cream Bao I didn’t quite win him over. Slightly deflated and sad that the meal was over I drank my tea, we paid up and left. Next time I’ll come for dinner and order everything!
Bao is an absolutely tiny restaurant with a Japanese-looking interior which makes it incredibly cosy. The service is relaxed and efficient, you almost as though you’re being cooked for by friends. That being said it is quite busy and can be a little noisy. We sat around a central bar which was comfy enough but perhaps not ideal if you are coming on a date. You should also be prepared to queue if you are coming at peak times. The queues are getting shorter every day but midday on a Saturday you are going to wait!
Overall, I am really happy for the guys at Bao. They’ve done a fantastic job at their first restaurant in Soho and I’m pleased to hear you can also now find them at Netil Market in Hackney! Woohoo!
For cheap, tasty food in London you really can’t do better.