Bao initially started life as a weekend-only street food stall at Neil market, proving so successful that they have been able to establish not one, but two restaurants (in Soho and Fitzrovia) in the two years since I have last visited the UK so naturally I was excited to visit when I was in the UK this summer.
Whilst the menus are slightly different at each restaurant, after a quick discussion with my friends, we decided to try their newly opened Fitzrovia branch as we figured there was less likely to be a queue – Bao is famously NO BOOKINGS although they recently started allowing bookings for groups of 4 or more at their Fitzrovia branch.
Arriving shortly after 12 (Ok I actually arrived early and lurked around the corner to ensure we didn’t get caught out by a sudden rush!) we were happy to find ourselves amongst the first guests of the day, although both of the floors of the tiny restaurant filled up over the next hour to the point that there was a queue when we left about 90 minutes after we had first been seated.
The menu is divided into just 4 sections “Xio Chi”or Snacks, designed to be eaten either alone or as part of a larger meal, Bao (of course) “Chi Shiang” Rice Bowls and Sides and whilst the waiter was happy to offer advice on how many dishes to order (2 Bao per person and a couple of snacks/sides for sharing) I was there with 2 Chefs who were as keen to sample as much as possible as I was so we didn’t pay all that much attention to his recommendations!
First up came the “Sanbei Octopus“(6) with Aged Beef Fat & Pepper, 2 gloriously unctuous “Beef Cheek & Tendon Nuggets“(4) and “XO Sweetcorn” (3) with Beef Butter.
Sanbei is a Taiwanese sauce made up of equal parts soy, sesame oil and rice wine with the addition of ginger, lots of garlic and fragrant Thai basil which added lovely notes of aniseed to the char of the octopus.
The Sweetcorn did not pack the expected “punch” of an XO sauce but thats possibly because it was tempered by the richness of the beef butter, as well as the fact that the other dishes we ate alongside it were absolute showstoppers.
I am not a beef eater, nor am I a fan of fat (unless its super soft like melted bone marrow) but there was something so completely moreish about the beef and tendon nuggets that I may need to reassess that comment in future! The beef cheek, admittedly one of my favourite cuts of beef, had been slow cooked and shredded, before being mixed in with chunks of tendon then breadcrumbed and deep fried. The nuggets packed a depth of flavour I had not been expecting and the tendon added just the right amount of texture, definitely one of the unexpected highlights of the meal for me!
Next up we were wowed by “Raw Langoustine, Dulse, Aged Soy & Oyster Leaf” (5) 3 beautiful langoustines that were served in aged soy (the aging seems to mellow out the saltiness) with a red seaweed (dulse) gel and oyster leaves, an unusual wild herb that really did add a briny intensity to the dish. It got me wondering if it has anything in common with the Cambodian herb that somehow tastes fishy , something I would definitely like to investigate more.
“Ginger Prawns and Crispy Heads” (4.50) were described in one review I had read as the perfect “beer snack” and they weren’t wrong! The heads were probably my preferred half of the dish and the salty crunch was very pleasing indeed.
As with the sweetcorn, the “Tomatoes & Plum Powder“(2.75) were still a bit too subtle to appreciate alongside the excellent langoustine and prawns but the plum powder added a nice tartness to the tomatoes and all in all the 3 dishes worked really well together.
Onto the Baos! I was SO happy when the waiter recommended that we order 2 per person as I had been eying up with the classic “Braised Pork, Ferments, Coriander & Peanut” (4) as well as the “Panko Daikon, Daikon Pickle & Hot Sauce” (4) and that essentially saved me from having to make any tough decisions!
I liked the use of braised pork over say pork belly (too fatty) and was impressed with how well it worked with the peanut as it was not a dish I ever could have imagined prior to trying it.
Texturally the panko daikon was just perfect. A slight crunch from the breadcrumbs and the pickles and then the lovey sweet, juicy daikon tempered by fiery hot sauce. Perfection and a fantastic veggie option that would have even the most ardent meat eater impressed.
My friends ordered the other Baos to try; “Confit Pork Belly, Crispy Shallots & Hot Sauce” (4.50) slow cooked “Lamb Shoulder, Green Sauce, Soy, Pickled Chilli“(5) and a “Black Cod, Ng Sauce & Hot Sauce“(5) with all 3 receiving similarly rave reviews to mine
Onto the final 3 dishes ( a good thing as we were rapidly filling up!) “Beef Short Rib, Marrow & Eryngi” (6.75) Rice Bowl, a “Fried Chicken Chop, Hot Sauce & Soy Cured Egg” (6) and a plate of “Duck Hearts with Chilli and Garlic” (5.50) that the most timid eater would have enjoyed.
After the other dishes, I probably found the Beef rice bowl and the chicken the least impressive, although I loved the use of the soy cured egg and the marrow melted beautifully into the warm rice, changing the favours of the dish as you ate, however my favourite of the 3 was definitely the duck hearts. Cooked perfectly so as still to be pink and juicy, with just the right “chew” to them, they were nicely offset by fiery chilli and garlic which really cut through the “offaly” taste, a perfect end to a delicious meal!
Of course we had cocktails, it would have been wrong not to! Happily the cocktail list is just as creative as the main menu wth cocktails like “Confusion Confucius” (8.50) with Mr Lyan Makkolie Gin, Peppered Chestnut, Sweet Potato & Lime & the “Pink Force Commando” (8.50) with Mextaxa 7 star, Galangal, Lemon & Red Fruit Bitters but they also have a small but decent selection of sake and beer available too if cocktails are not your thing.
In case it wasn’t abundantly clear, I was really wowed by BAO! Living in Asia, many of these ingredients and techniques are really available but that doesn’t mean you get to see such skilled, fun usage of them very often and Bao was definitely a highlight of my trip!
Bao Fitzrovia – Windmill St, Fitzrovia, W1T 2JN, 0203 011 1632
Mon – Sat 12-3.30 | 5.30-10