The tube strike was the topic of conversation in London last week. Grid locked roads and two hour commutes fuelled annoyance that later turned into anger once the salaries of the strikers were revealed which lead to an explosion of comparative memes and general online fury.
They say however, that every cloud has a silver lining. In this case that silver lining would be, getting a table for two at BAO,with little more than a ten minute wait at 8pm on a Wednesday night. Given this tiny restaurant’s burgeoning popularity and location in the densest populated food quarter in London, this is no mean feat!
Situated on Lexington Street and painted entirely grey, lies BAO, the understated, minimalist 30 cover restaurant by sisters Wai Ting and Shing Tat Chung and Shing Tat’s partner Erchen Chang. They started BAO as a street food collective in 2012 before opening a semi permanent location in Hackney’s Netil Market. Now, backed by the team behind Trishna, Gymkhana and Lyles, the trio have given Taiwanese cuisine a permanent residence in the heart of Soho. Based on Erchen’s childhood experience and regular trips made back to Taiwan with Shing Tat, BAO prides itself on being an authentic representation of Taiwanese cuisine.
Inside, BAO’s minimalist design continues with white walls, floating light wooden tables and staff dressed in what would appear to be lab coats. It could feel clinical were it not for the warm lighting, lively atmosphere and fun sketches of men eating bao dotted around. Instead, BAO manages to be smart and efficient yet inviting. Imagine if Muji created a restaurant, this would be it.
We are sat in the centre of the restaurant around the communal table that encloses the bar. There are other tables against the wall that accommodate parties of four, but largely the seating is shared. This layout is perfectly designed to maximise turnover, it is a bums on seats, quick turnaround affair, where you queue, stuff your face, then leave for the next person in line to do the same. Service, like the décor is efficient, food arrives as it is made and you could quite easily grab 6 dishes in half an hour. The style of service and layout makes BAO a tasty and comfortable choice for single dining.
Once seated you are given two pieces of paper, first an ordering menu that is separated into ‘Xiao Chi’ (Small Plates), the legendary ‘Bao’ and sides, whereby you write the quantity of each dish you fancy. The second piece of paper has the dual purpose of being a drinks menu and explaining what is inside each bao. For any queries about the small plates it is best to ask your waiter/tress, who are happy to help. Ours was delightful and she gave honest knowledgeable recommendations for both food and drink.
Off the small plates we chose the scallop with yellow bean garlic, pig blood cake, aged beef rump cap with aged white soy sauce and the Taiwanese fried chicken. Ordering one scallop was a mistake, the combination of sweet flesh, punchy sauce and yellow garlic was incredibly moreish.
The fried chicken was effectively an adult chicken nugget, soy milk marinated meat, deep fried in batter until ultimately crisp and drizzled with powerful hot sauce. It was great, but on arrival confused me because I was expecting something more along the lines of sticky fried chicken. We ordered it both on it’s own and inside a bao, the latter being preferable because the addition of a black sesame bun, kimchi and Sichuan mayonnaise made it even more delicious.
The aged beef rump cap is one of the more elegant dishes on the menu however the subtlety of it’s flavour goes unappreciated when tasted alongside more punchy dishes. If you order it, eat it first. Out of the small plates our favourite was definitely the pig blood cake. A rectangle of home-made black pudding with incredible savoury depth is topped with a soy aged egg yolk, that once split, coats the cake in a naturally rich, umami sauce.
We ate three baos (in the name of research of course) and agreed that the classic, out of the ones we tried, was the best. The combination of braised pork with peanut powder, fermented greens and coriander played in your mouth, a perfectly balanced concoction of sweet, salty and sour. The texture and appearance of the milk bun is pleasingly childlike, the bun has an impressive buoyancy that is both intriguing and comforting, an edible pillow if you like.
To accompany our food we drank Snow Blossom, a young sake with fruity characteristics. It was incredibly refreshing and sweeter than sake that I have previously drunk, which made it invariably more enjoyable. In truth it is hard to find fault with BAO, the food, drink and service are all excellent as is the price, with a classic bao, coming in at only £3.75 you could easily eat and drink with service charge for less that twenty quid.
And if you come on a tube strike, you hardly have to queue at all.
BAO, 53 Lexington Street, Soho, W1F 9AS £-££ 9/10