Thursday, 12pm, Fitzrovia. Bao – yes, Bao – the Taiwanese place that even the lady from the paper who hates queues tells you to get in line for if you have to, is half-empty. Could it be true? No time to tarry, not even for a nanosecond. This is one of those moments in life you have to seize by the balls or face a lifetime of regret. Or at least the occasional Friday evening, every time you’re out in town and foolish enough to think you might just be able to get a seat without too much delay. Get in there, now.
Moments later, inside, everything happens fast. Not rushed, just fast. Seated instantly, concept explained, food on the way. There’s nothing better than a menu that’s to the point, and this is as sharp as they come; a short selection of simple sounding dishes that all have a clear USP but don’t brag about it, as if to say “I know I’m good, you can take it or leave it.” Prawns are ginger, langoustine is raw, and cod bao is black with ng sauce (exactly). The drinks list doesn’t waste time either; wine, beer, cocktails, tea, no more than a handful of options for each. There’s clearly nothing here that hasn’t made it through a rigorous audition process. Sanbei octopus, confit pork bao, maipo aubergine; they all sound like stars in their own right but eating for one has its limits, so today it’s the langoustine, lamb and black cod bao, pickled cabbage and the XO sweetcorn with beef butter. It’s a hot day, so a Baozhong cold brew to drink seems sensible.
The tea arrives first, en carafe. Brewed for 24 hours and sweetened just a smidge, it’s ice cold and refreshing, with deep caramel undertones. Next is raw langoustine with aged soy. Delicate, sweet, fresh, it’s one of the cleanest plates of food you’ll find anywhere. Lamb bao comes as rich and fatty shoulder in the bun with a sharp green sauce to balance, while the cod is encased in a crispy charcoal black batter. This particular rendition feels light on the famed Ng sauce, but there’s no denying the juiciness of the fish and the softness of the dark speckled dough. It all disappears in seconds. And then comes the sweetcorn…
At places like Bao they hide the best dishes where you least expect them. Words like ‘Beef Butter’ are like little clues, tip offs for the intrepid diner that say “Pssssst! Over here.” When they call, you should listen, because this is incredible. A bowl of nutty chargilled kernels rolled in the richest, meatiest, ooziest butter that ever churned. Warm and soothing, it lifts the spirits beyond words. It’s heaven. Just heaven.
Everything here does what it says on the tin, so if you want sides you have to order them. Pickled cabbage is just that, all crunch and tang. Next door’s grilled lettuce gem looked like a gutsy underdog to rival the corn. Sweets are milkshakes – condensed milk or chocolate and toasted rice, and the latter was as good a version as you’ll find in just the right measure, not too much. But you don’t come to Bao for that, you come to Bao for dishes and sublime combinations you won’t find anywhere else. At reasonable prices. It’s a restaurant that justifies its existence more and more with each mouthful, so at the risk of following the crowd, just go. Queue if you want, it’s worth the wait, but if you can handle your own company for forty-five minutes then go by yourself and get there when it opens. The food’s so good you won’t do too much talking anyway. Don’t think twice, it’s alright, just go.
31 Windmill Street,
Monday – Saturday:
12 – 3pm
5:30 – 10pm
P.S. A shout out to the service at Bao, which was friendly and down to earth. No cooler than thou loftiness here.