Sometimes, just sometimes, a restaurant lives up to expectations. Exceeds them, even. Bao is one such place. This tiny, no-frills Taiwanese steamed-bun and small-plate place in London's Soho is almost perfect. And I didn't expect that.
The logo had been a problem. It's a David Shrigley-esque sketch of a hunched-over man eating a bao (bun) but it looks a bit like he's eating his fist, or possibly trying to stem an upchuck. Or maybe that's just my side-eye? Then there's the instant talk of long queues. So it is more in duty than unfettered enthusiasm that I arrive at 12.10pm and join the end of the line.
Bao has been set up by the trio of Erchen Chang (originally from Taipei) and brother and sister Shing Tat and Wai Ting Chung (all three in their twenties). They've cut their teeth running a minuscule street-food stall in north-east London and arrive in the cut-throat world of Soho to become a permanent fixture. (And they have the backing of the Sethi family, hitmakers with Trishna, Gymkhana, Kitchen Table and Lyle's already.)
Once I near the front of the queue, a kindly waitress offers a menu in the form of a tick-list torn from a pad (heads up: arrive before the opening time of 12pm to get in the first batch to sit down, or you face a lengthy wait). I and my equally hype-allergic companion Jack decide to have one of everything other than the dishes that are less appealing (century egg, daikon bao). The descriptions challenge those not familiar with the cuisine, but the keen pricing means you can afford to risk, for instance, pig-blood cake, or trotter nugget, without breaking the bank.
There are nine xiao chi (small eats) and six bao; three sides and three each of oolong teas, sakes, ciders and beers. We have Taiwanese foam tea, which looks like a small lager with a lot of froth; it's actually both cooling and creamy – the perfect foil for the big-hitting flavours that start arriving.
Everything dazzles. From the dainty glass of rich, comforting "peanut milk" (£1.50) to the biggest dish, a gooey, pickle- and egg-enriched bowl of guinea fowl chi shiang rice (£6), we sigh little sighs of happiness. The issue is with finishing it all. It's clear we've wildly over-ordered but are powerless to stop poking the dishes down (now that sketch becomes more meaningful)…
If I had to narrow recommendations for when you visit – and please do, it is so worth the wait – I'd say this: the scallop with yellow-bean garlic (£3.50) is magnificent – the minced garlic softened in a dark, insanely umami sauce with a very good, fresh seared scallop. That pig-blood cake (£3.50) is a deeply savoury, black pudding/haggisy rectangle topped with the blazing sunshine of a soy-aged egg yolk. If you like fried chicken (and if you don't, are you mad?), this version (£5) is terrific – astonishing how the coating seems to have both crisp and crumbly textures and is drenched in a fiery sauce. The meat – both thigh and breast in four-piece portion – is obviously from a decent bird.
Something more refined is the 40-day rump cap with aged white soy sauce (£6). These six slices of steak might just be the finest I've ever eaten – tender yet packed with texture (a neat gobbet of fat at one end), with an intense beefiness brought out by the merest kiss of salty soy. The beef is from Warrens in Cornwall, whom I've lovebombed before.
After that, the bao are back in street-food territory, but none the less impressive for that. The steamed milk buns are rightly famous from Hackney days – if in doubt, you can't go wrong with the classic (£3.75), a heady mix of rich, slow-braised pork, mealy peanut powder and fresh shredded coriander in a snowy white pillow – with fermented greens adding a mouth-puckering aftershock. A beef soup with braised daikon could cure the flu all by itself. Can you tell I love it here?
We didn't need the house pickles, the sweet-potato chips or the turnip-top side dishes, but all added sugary, savoury, spicy, salty treats.
And after all that, the already-famous Fried Horlicks Ice Cream (£4), a sweetened bao, fried till crunchy, with a huge dollop of malty, creamy goodness inside. It makes excited children of us.
Service is with a (well-trained) smile – sit at the counter, and the pace and placement of the dishes is a real joy. If Michelin got off its starched-tablecloth arse and got modern, Bao would be a shoo-in.
BAO, 53 Lexington Street, London W1, £50 for two, with soft drinks
Four more foodie notes from the past week
Sensational last-minute birthday dinner at my neighbourhood Japanese, which is at least the equal of showy West End places.
Stevie Parle has built a delicious, stylish all-day place in otherwise-unlovable North Greenwich. A terrific first dinner – I'll be back.
A must-stop on my regular visit to relatives is this (recently extended) Hungerford farm shop. Asparagus is new in; bought almost an armful.
Clever website for the hospitality trade, named for when a dish is taken off a menu. Makes great reading for us on the sidelines.
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