The king is dead; long live the king
Fitzrovia has always had more than its fair share of restaurants given the relatively small size of this neighbourhood, hemmed in by Bloomsbury, Soho and Marylebone. Even so, the area has bloomed in recent years with some top notch restaurants opening in Fitzrovia from the revamped Newman Arms to Piquet and, of course, the famed Dabbous. Even the merely satisfactory restaurants are often better than many of the the overhyped eateries in other parts of the capital.
It’s therefore no surprise that Bao has opened its second permanent location on the site of the former Boopshi’s. Although Bao could’ve simply left Boopshi’s fine wooden fittings in place, they’ve completely gutted and revamped the place, so that it fits into the Muji-esque aesthetic of their original Soho restaurant.
As with the Soho restaurant, reservations aren’t taken so arrive early or be prepared to queue. Top lunchtime queuing tip (which will probably be ruined by its mention here): get here at around 13.00/13.30 – the eager beaver midday crowd will be finishing up and the lily-livered faint of heart non-queuers will have drifted away. Seats are arranged around a bar on the ground floor and around the kitchen in the basement, although the latter seating area wasn’t fully open at the time of writing.
First things first
While there are, of course, plenty of Taiwanese buns on the menu at Bao, it would be exceedingly foolish of you to ignore the rest of the menu. The lip-smacking consomme-like chicken broth was almost transcendent. It was made even better by accompaniments served on the side – a delicately earthy mushroom and an unctuously honky bit of chicken skin. The best accompaniment had to be the unassuming medallion of chicken though – moist, milky and then creamy, it was seductively soft and meshed with the broth to an immensely satisfying effect.
Firm slices of octopus tentacle were served in a sweet and umami soy sauce, possibly laced with a bit of shaoxing wine, which really hit the spot.
Duck hearts were tender rather than crisply yielding and weren’t quite as punchy. They were still nonetheless pleasing as vessels for carrying tangy preserved vegetables and the sharp, tingly and cumulatively spicy sauce into my mouth.
Don’t order the pickled cabbage if you’re expecting kimchi – the taut, slippery and light sour and tart cabbage slices were instead closer to the pickled vegetable batons sometimes served at old school Cantonese restaurants. The bowlful here was nonetheless pleasing.
The beef short rib rice is the work of a genius. Although I usually prefer my short grain rice to be softer and fluffier, the firmer rice here did serve as a neat contrast to the tender slices of beef. Despite being almost wafer thin, the cow flesh was dense and intensely beefy with a pleasingly rich rind of connective tissue still attached. A quivering, indecently sumptuous cube of beef fat provided a short yet intense hit of unctuousness. Like an Oxo cube wearing a strap-on, this well-crafted dish was intensely pleasurable and won’t soon be forgotten.
While not very pillowy, the soft bao buns were still pleasing as they allowed the dense yet tenderly porky strands of the Classic Pork Bao to stand out. A hint of umami and a malty crumb topping were deft, highly complimentary finishing touches.
This will seem like heresy to many, but I’ve never been impressed by battered cod. Stodgy, dull and lifeless, it usually has all the appeal of a Harvester buffet. Bao’s cod black bao shows that this doesn’t have to be the case. Crisp, light and oil-free batter contained an equally light and delicately flaky hunk of cod. A creamy sauce had a vague tartar-like quality to it that suited the battered cod well. Spot-on.
Bao does a fine line in non-alcoholic drinks which is welcome news for non-sozzled individuals such as myself. The milk foam tea from the Soho Bao makes a welcome appearance. A lightly tannic brew topped with a gently creamy foam, its crispness and clarity was immensely refreshing despite the small portion size.
Going back for seconds
Sweetcorn doesn’t sound terribly exciting, but if you’re still doubting Bao’s kitchen then you clearly haven’t been paying attention. Moderately-sized kernels, cooked just so, were sweet and lightly buttery. The tingly, tangy, umami moreishness of the XO-style sauce was very addictive. I only wish it was just a wee bit spicier and that the kitchen had been more generous with it.
It should come as no surprise that the crispy prawn heads were delicious despite the absence of the main body – the gunky head innards are often the most visceral, best tasting parts of the crustacean. Here, the heads were crisp without shattering into mouth-piercing shards, while retaining both umaminess and an evocative sense of the sea. Both aspects were emphasised by the gently creamy sauce, producing a combination that was highly effective in both texture and taste.
The raw langoustines, on the other hand, weren’t quite as successful and something of an unbalanced oddity. Firm yet quivering, the langoustines resembled the amaebi prawns often used in sushi and sashimi. Their natural sweet lightness was overwhelmed by the sweetness and umaminess of the soy sauce though. The taste of the soy sauce, combined with the firmness of the langoustines, made this dish oddly reminiscent of prawn cheung fun, especially as the oyster leaf was neither here nor there.
I didn’t expect to find tomatoes on Bao’s menu, as the fruit isn’t common in traditional Taiwanese and wider Chinese cooking. Then again, Bao is hardly a slave to tradition. The small tomato chunks here ranged from umami to sweet and tangy, with the latter in particular emphasised by the dusting of plum powder.
Mapo aubergine was a perfectly enjoyable dish, as long as you don’t expect it to be similar to a classic Sichuanese mapo tofu. Strips and chunks of aubergine ranged from buttery and soft to smoky and fleshy. Served on a bed of al dente soft grain rice, the aubergine was doused in a sauce that was more tingly, tangy and moreish instead of the typical spicy and numbing heat of a traditional mapo tofu. It makes sense really – a powerfully numbing Sichuan pepper sauce would’ve stolen the limelight away from the expertly prepared eggplant.
The bao were just as soft as they were before, as well as more voluminously pillowy this time around. Fatty, tender and unctuous pork belly hit the spot, with crisp shallots provided textural contrast. The tangy, moreish sauce wasn’t spicy ‘hot’ as advertised, but it still neatly cut through the fattiness of the confit belly pork.
The only vegetarian bao on Bao’s menu has a slab of sweet and starchy daikon coated in a crisp, airy, light and oil-free panko batter. It was delightful just as it was, with no need for a repeat appearance of the same ‘hot’ sauce that came with the confit pork bao.
Bao’s coldbrewed tea was unsurprisingly similar to the cold brew tea I sampled in Taiwan’s Hualien County. Crisp and clear with a gentle honey-like sweetness, it was remarkably refreshing.
Bao’s chocolate and toasted rice milkshake was by no means bad, but it wasn’t anywhere as sensuous as my waitress would have me believe. Tasting much like a malted chocolate milkshake, it was thick and refreshing without being viscous, heavy and cloying.
Bao’s menu can adapt and change in subtle ways. The sanbei octopus, while similar to the way it was before with firm octopus tentacle slices, was nonetheless noticeably different as well. The sauce was spicier this time around and was also dotted with sweet, tender peppers. This tweaked version worked well, but I still prefer the earlier version overall for its simplicity.
The fried chicken ‘chop’ was essentially Bao’s take on Korean-style fried chicken. It wasn’t the crispest fried chicken I’ve ever had (that honour is still held by The Clove Club’s non-Korean version), but it still had a pleasing crunch that surpassed lesser versions elsewhere. Even better was the milky meat underneath all the batter and the tingly, tangy gochuang-esque sauce which had an extra level of viscosity and richness from the egg yolk.
You don’t get chicken nuggets at Bao, but beef tendon and cheek nuggets instead. The lightly crisp and yielding crumb exterior was matched by the unctuously moist strands of connective tissue and chunks of beef inside. If you need yet another lesson in not overlooking cheap cuts of beef, then this is one right here.
The soft pillowy bun of the lamb gua bao was just as good as ever, but it was eclipsed by the unctuous, earthy and fatty chunks of lamb dressed in a tingly, piquant sauce. Lamb only occasionally appears in the Chinese food over here; we’re clearly missing out based on this dish.
The mapo aubergine rice was just as good as it was before, if not better – the short grain rice was noticeably softer and fluffier this time around. The optional addition of an egg yolk added a subtle extra richness as well as a noticeably velvety and unctuous mouth feel. Just be careful when pouring/spooning the egg yolk over the buttery aubergine – the latter isn’t especially absorbent so you could end up with egg on your face.
It would be easy to overlook the grilled lettuce, but you shouldn’t. The taut and supple leaves were dressed with what looked like crispy shallots, but were actually punchy bits of fried confit garlic. The crispiness and powerful warmth of the confit garlic might be cheating, but who cares when it’s this good.
The cold brew tea was just as good as ever.
The condensed milk milkshake successfully captured the intense creamy sweetness of condensed milk, but without its viscosity. It was somewhat reminiscent of Hawksmoor’s seminal cornflake milkshake – just as lip-smacking and more refreshing too.
The Fitzrovia branch of Bao is unsurprisingly excellent. The kitchen could’ve just sat on its laurels and served up a replica of the original Soho menu, but it has instead pushed the state of the art forwards. The gua bao themselves remain the benchmark by which all others are judged, but arguably it’s the other dishes that are the stars here. From the chicken broth and the octopus to the beef short rib rice and the beef nuggets, not forgetting the superlative ice cold teas, Bao Fitzrovia is a leading light in London for modern Chinese dining.
The capital’s more table-clothed, glitzier-looking Chinese restaurants may have the edge in comfort when compared to Bao’s stools, but Bao comes close to upstaging them at every turn when it comes to the actual food. The question isn’t whether you should eat at Bao, it’s how often you should come back.
What to order: Everything
What to avoid: I honestly can’t think of anything
Name: Bao (Fitzrovia/Tottenham Court Road branch)
Address: 31 Windmill Street, Fitzrovia, London W1T 2JN
Phone: none listed
Opening Hours: Monday – Saturday noon-15.00 and 17.30-22.00. Closed Sunday.
Reservations: not taken.
Average cost for one person including soft drinks and service charge: £35-45 approx.