Places To Eat In London: Bao, Fitzrovia
It is not often I forgive a restaurant that has taken over the building of one of my since closed favourites. Bao‘s second bricks-and-mortar outpost in Fitzrovia had to be fantastic for me to not mind too much that my go-to schnitzel-and-spritz joint Boopshi’s had closed. Thankfully, it was. Literally every single piece of food we put in our mouths was bang on point, and I even ordered a second plate of the raw langoustines, just for me. It absolutely lived up to AA Gill’s glowing review last month, which was the reason I went in the first place.
The concept is really simple once you get the hang of it. You sit down at the bar (or in front of the open kitchen in the basement), and mark how many of what you want on your menu using the pencils provided. The drinks menu is also provided on a separate sheet, and the service is fast, efficient and friendly. They cross off your dishes as they arrive, as and when they are ready (everything comes at quite nice intervals).
To drink, we started with a big bottle of Taiwanese beer (it goes down as easy as you’d expect for an Asian beer, but has a bit of a unique edge making it just that little bit different) and a couple of cocktails. I was not sure what to make of ‘The Mad Monk’ (Mr. Lyan’s Diamond Rickey, Fino, Pickled Cucumber and soda) which was lovely, but had an unusual savoury edge, and my ‘Plastic City’ (rhubarb vodka, sake, salted plum and grapefruit soda) went down really nicely. I loved that it came with a piece of salted plum, which our server told me to take a bite of before taking a sip to really bring out the flavour of the rhubarb vodka, but they were not the best cocktails I’ve ever had (okay, I’m missing those Spritz!) Order a beer, or some sake on ice (I loved their plum sake), and move on to some of the best Taiwanese food you’ve ever had.
My side came first. I watched other people have the tomatoes with plum powder, and the grilled lettuce gem with confit garlic, and I wish that I’d had room for those too, but as a bit of a veggie palette cleanser between dishes I ordered a side of pickled cabbage. Basically, it was like kimchee without the chilli, and as I’m that person who eats all of those little kimchee dishes at Korean restaurants straight, this made me very happy.
We started with a bao (bun) each. He had lamb shoulder with green sauce and a pice of soy pickled chilli (which he said was excellent), and I had the black cod bun, sandwiched in with ng sauce, a little hot sauce and just a sprinkling of slaw, which was absolutely phenomenal. No, seriously. This has to be one of the best bao’s I’ve ever had. It was so full of rich, bright, and exciting flavour which left me wanting more. Usually cod is slightly dry and flakey, right? Well, this cod was juicy and tender, only just, barely flaking and cooked to perfection; even a few more seconds would have rendered it just like any other piece of cod you’ve tasted.
Next, we shared a plate of beef cheek and tendon nuggets, which were absolutely fabulous. The tender, just cooked and slightly jellied middles were bursting with rich, beefy flavour, finished in the perfect crunchy coating. I have no idea what the sauce was they were served with, but it was good. Very good.
While absolutely everything we ate was incredible, the one dish I re-ordered (though, if I’d had room I could have gone for another black cod bao!) was the raw langoustines with oyster leaf and dulse (sea lettuce). I eat a lot of raw shellfish in sushi or sashimi form, and this dish has to top the table. The sweet, flavourful langoustines are brought to life with the salty, unami flavour of the soy, and the perfectly, ice cold plate they are served on keep holds the food at the optimum flavour for enjoyment. I’m not kidding when I say that this is now up there with the scallop ceviche at Lima as one of my favourite dishes in London.
Next to the table was a plate of just cooked duck hearts (offal is always best served slightly pink) served with a chilli and garlic sauce, and a generous sprinkling of sliced spring onions. We hoovered these up, because they were absolutely phenomenal (I know at this point I’m just piling the superlatives onto every plate, but this truly was one of the best meals I’ve had (with the exception of a visit to The Compasses Inn in Crundale) since I was at Chateaux de la Treyne in the Dordogne Valley. This is one of these dishes that we would probably have re-ordered if we had not wanted to try more dishes and we were not getting a bit full, as it was beautifully balanced. If you’ve never had heart before, this is also the perfect entry level dish.
Finally from our first round of dishes came our pork buns: beautiful slices of confit pork belly, smothered in their house hot sauce (not too weak but also not too spicy), and finished with crunchy shallots. We went for this one as their signature pork bun came with powdered peanuts (and we both agree that peanuts are one of the culinary roots of all evil), and it did not disappoint. Okay, so it did not blow me away like my black cod bun, but it is so hard to make pork belly delicious rather than fatty; obviously, they managed perfectly.
With the second round of ordering came the second round of drinks. As I mentioned, I had some of their beautiful plum sake (they asked if I wanted it straight or on ice, so you can opt for your personal preference), and he had the Pink Force Commando, a drink he ordered because of the name, but turned out to be a wonderful mix of Metaxa 7 Star, galangal, lemon and red fruit bitters. Again, it was a delicious, interesting cocktail, but not necessarily something for a restaurant where the food does all the talking.
While everything coming out of the kitchen looked interesting, the one dish we saw other being being served that we decided we must have for ourselves was the fried chicken chop with hot sauce and a cured egg yolk. It was one of the best pieces of fried chicken I’ve ever had; a crisp, crunchy, flavourful coating without a hint of fattiness, with a wonderful hot sauce (which was just right, not too overpowering so that it ruined the food), made into a lovely blend with the yolk. Literally my only complaints were that I was probably too full at this point for it, and that there was only one yolk – I love egg yolk in any runny form, cooked or raw.
Even when the place has just opened for lunch, people queue around the corner, so if you’re going mid-week like we did either leave the office for a late lunch to eat at 2pm, or spend the hour waiting for it to empty out a bit drinking sloe gin and tonics in the pub (they don’t take reservations). However, be warned the kitchen closes at 3pm, so get orders of second plates in early, and you probably won’t get dessert. However, never feat because you’re only a 10 minutes walk past the new Tottenham Court Road station to Gelupo on Cambridge Circus in Covent Garden. The Blood Orange Sorbet and Fresh Mint Straccia Gelato cones we somehow found room for were truly excellent.