16 June 2016

Taking a BAO — Restaurant Review

My visit to the Netil Market outpost of BAO last summer left me craving more of the Taiwanese restaurant's titular bao — pillowy soft white steamed buns with incredible fillings. BAO's main home in Lexington Street, in the heart of Soho, is always busy; the small restaurant only has about 30 covers and there is often a queue and when I've passed, I've either been in a rush or with a group of people, both of which make dining at BAO either difficult, if not impossible.

On Saturday, though, the stars aligned because I had plenty of time and it was raining — naively, I assumed that the rain might curtail the queue, but alas, the usual patient crowd was gathered on the pavement opposite BAO. Before long, one of the servers brought me out a copy of the menu to peruse while I waited, which definitely helped, although I had mentally eaten most of the dishes by the time it was my turn to head inside. The turnover is quite fast and the wait time was about 20–25 minutes wait for one or two people, and a little longer for larger groups.

I took my spot at one of the seats around the central bar — there are also a few tables at the back, near the kitchen, but I enjoyed watching the drinks being made. As well as the 'checklist' I had been given in the queue, there was a separate menu that explains all the different bao. I asked the waitress how much I should order and she said about three bao per person, but instead, I went for two bao and a couple of small-plate starters (xiao chi).

Although the pineapple and bay soda (£3.75) sounded great, I'd just drunk a bottle of pineapple juice and settled for a foam tea (£3) instead: a golden oolong tea served cold with a creamy foam on top. It looked like a mini lager, but was refreshing and surprisingly tasty. I also had a peanut milk (£2), which is exactly as it sounds; I could definitely have drunk this all afternoon. There are a few cocktails, wines, sakes and beers on offer too.

Food-wise, I started with a scallop (singular) with yellow bean garlic, which was £3.75 but well worth the price: my scallop was large and flavoursome. In what would become a theme of the meal, I wish I'd ordered another one (or two). The trotter nuggets (£4) were also a real treat: crispy on the outside and surprisingly tender on the inside. I dipped them in the accompanying green chilli sauce and ate them whole because I was a little squeamish about what the insides might look like.

I have one word for the bao — wow. I had already tried the classic (braised pork with peanuts, greens and coriander) at Netil Market, and although it was right up my street, I decided to branch out by ordering the confit pork (confit pork belly, pork sauce, hot sauce and shallots; £4.50) and the fried chicken (with Sichuan mayo and kimchi, served on a sesame bao; £5). Both were superb — the pork belly was so juicy and tender, while the fried chicken was perfectly crispy and paired well with the spicy accompaniments. If I had to pick one favourite dish, I think it would have to be the fried chicken bao, but as you can probably tell, by the time I'd finished, I was already plotting what to eat on my return visit, including the pudding bao (a fried bao with Horlicks ice cream).

Sadly, though, I was getting full and the kitchen was about to close (they shut between 3 and 5.30 pm), so it was time to bao out. I paid about £25 including service for my small feast — not cheap but very reasonable given the quality of the food. And if you can't face waiting in line, maybe BAO's second branch, which opens in Windmill Street next month, will ease the queuing situation. One can but hope!

BAO. 53 Lexington Street, London, W1F 9AS (Tube: Oxford Circus or Piccadilly Circus). Website. Twitter. Instagram.

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