But this Borough restaurant isn’t the best of both worlds
The flowering of new Chinese restaurants across London in recent years has given us all a joyous bounty to partake in. Biang biang noodles, skewered offal and spicy crayfish – to name but a few examples – are immensely preferable to the saggy prawn toasts, bone-dry ducks and tired fried rices of yesteryear. This growth in regional Chinese cuisines that were unknown to most Londoners just a few years ago is, of course, not guaranteed to continue forever. Hungry mouths eager for new horizons are a powerful force, but so is the staffing shortage in restaurants across the capital and impatient venture capitalists eager for a return on their investment.
Baozi Inn is a small but flourishing mini-chain of Chinese restaurants from some of the people behind the pioneering Sichuanese restaurants Bar Shu. But the London Bridge branch of Baozi Inn takes a different spin on the capital’s recent trend in ever greater specialisation in regional Chinese cooking. Whereas previous Baozi Inns were almost wholly Sichuanese affairs, the London Bridge branch has a menu of Cantonese roasts alongside ‘Chengdu’ dumplings (as well as a few other Sichuanese staples). It’s a somewhat odd arrangement, akin to arriving at a bouillabaisse restaurant to discover that they also do choucroute, tarte flambé and other Alsace dishes.
The results left much to be desired.
Cantonese dishes at Baozi Inn London Bridge
Baozi Inn’s Cantonese roasts can be had with rice, pancakes, ‘dry’ noodles or in a noodle soup. Rice was consistently fluffy and small-grained, while the dry noodle option saw the use of thin, wrinkly and moreish egg noodles. Of the roast meats themselves, the most successful had to be the soya chicken. Chopped into chopstick-able pieces with the bone still attached, the milky, tender meat had a light umami. Whether you have it with dry noodles or rice, all the roast meats come with crisp bok choi and a hard boiled egg.
While the roast duck was enjoyable enough on its own terms, especially with its moist and tender meat, its skin was deeply unimpressive. Supple but oddly bland and characterless with not quite enough extant fat, it couldn’t hold a candle to the very best Cantonese-style roast duck. Baozi Inn’s char siu pork was similarly more enjoyable when taken on its own terms, rather than compared to exemplars of its type. More like a soy braised pork than a complex, multilayered basted barbecue, there was still joy to be found in its fattiness tinged with a gentle umami.
The crispy roast pork had been chopped into weeny little cubes, but this wasn’t enough to disguise the so-so crackling or the characterless swine flesh. The lightly tangy and piquant sauce was very much needed here.
Somewhat oddly given Baozi Inn’s name, the eponymous buns themselves are only available as a single catch-all platter. While all suitably fluffy and soft, none of the fillings were especially memorable. Transiently crisp cabbage and chive. Sweet char siu pork, finely chopped. Shrug inducing mushroom. A mystery meat – possibly beef – daubed in ginger. Rodan suspected that these four baozi may have been defrosted to order or at least brought in from a central kitchen. Whatever the case, what’s clear is that only thing distinguishing these buns from any other are the flashy colours.
The won ton noodle soup got the noodle part right. Thin, wrinkly and heartily moreish, they were the most enjoyable element of this bowl. Everything else wasn’t bad, just a bit lacking in one way or another. The won tons were chunky beasts with thin and wrinkly skins, but the pork and prawn filling proved to be surprisingly bland. The shimmering soup was relatively moreish, but could’ve done with a dash or two of sesame oil. I’ve had worse bowls of won ton noodle soup, but I’ve also had better.
Dumplings at Baozi Inn London Bridge
Baozi Inn’s big dumplings in soup are somewhat similar to guan tang bao with a huge singular dumpling, but with the dumpling resting in broth rather than the broth sitting inside the dumpling itself. All had soft, thick and doughy skins. The filling of the beef version was chunky and meaty, while the soup was moderately moreish. The Euro Hedgie though the beefiness of both was shallow though and wished there had been some vinegar in the soup.
The pork variant had an oddly medicinal soup which was a tad unpleasant, while the chunky dumpling filling leaned on flecks of ginger for character. The sole vegetarian big dumpling came stuffed with tangy, minced mushrooms, while the soup was sharp if somewhat medicinal like the pork. On balance, the beef was the best of the lot but that’s not saying much.
The Baozi Inn London Bridge menu roughly divides its other dumplings between thick and doughy ‘traditional’ jiaozi, thin and wrinkly skinned won tons as well as ‘Chengdu-style’ jiaozi theoretically falling somewhere in between the two in terms of thickness.
The traditional jiaozi are thick-skinned and boiled. They’re hearty little buggers, with crisp cabbage and chive making up the vegetable-filled variant. The dipping vinegar on the side was surprisingly tame though.
The differences between the dumpling skins of the Chengdu-style jiaozi, XO jiaozi and won tons were surprisingly minimal given that won tons are often a lot thinner and more translucent. The skins were fine in of themselves, but the only real distinguishing factor between the versions I had was their colour which is a purely superficial trait.
All that would’ve been fine if the fillings and sauces were distinctive and characterful, but this was far from the case. The pork filling of the Chengdu-style jiaozi was beiger than a second-hand cardigan faded from too many wash cycles. The prawn fillings of the XO jiaozi and XO won tons were similarly lifeless. The XO sauce on both wasn’t awful, just somewhat lacklustre packing only a mild spice and only a smidge of musky earthiness and umami. There was more punch from the scattering of sesame seeds and puddle of dark soy sauce. I’m not saying you could do better at home with a frozen bag of dumplings and jars of sauces from a Chinese supermarket, but you wouldn’t be that far off either.
Sichuanese dishes at Baozi Inn London Bridge
Although not promoted anywhere as heavily as the dumplings and Cantonese roasts, a significant chunk of the London Bridge menu consists of classic Sichuanese dishes. Unfortunately, the few I tried largely dissuaded me from having any more. Baozi Inn’s version of mapo tofu was crudely simplistic, with a flat one-dimensional sauce that tasted more of faint garlic than sassy chilli and fermented beans. It did little to lift the lacklustre cubed tofu and minced pork which were neither here nor there.
While quiveringly tender with chunky strips of neatly rendered fat, the red braised pork belly was a surprisingly tame and pallid affair. This was largely due to the blandly ineffective sauce which didn’t have anything close to the bold yet balanced combination of sweetness and umami that characterises the best versions of this dish.
The only Sichuanese dish I tried that wasn’t an epochal disgrace was the dan dan noodles. Mixing the thick, flat sided noodles into the peppery, numbing warmth of the sauce made for an eat that was far more satisfying than either the mapo tofu or the red braised pork belly.
Other dishes at Baozi Inn London Bridge
Not every dish on the London Bridge menu falls neatly into the Cantonese and Sichuanese categories. Three cups chicken is a classic Jiangsu dish that crops up regularly on the menus of Taiwanese restaurants. Although the version here had tender chook, the sauce had a flat boozy tartness which was wretched in its timidity. Its one-dimensional flavour was a far cry from the deeply complex and satisfying flavour of three cups chicken at its best.
While there were a few bright spots here and there, as a whole the food at Baozi Inn London Bridge proved to be a bitter disappointment. The see-saw nature of the Cantonese roasts was bad enough in a town full of worthwhile competition. But it was the flawed dumplings and Sichuanese dishes that was most surprising given this restaurant’s historic links to Barshu. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear the London Bridge version of Baozi Inn was the template for a dreary chain rollout. But this Borough outpost is actually the latest in a small string of Baozi Inns, each with a different menu. This apparent desire to avoid cookie cutter cooking is admirable, but the management’s ambitions outstrip the skills of its kitchen.
If nothing else, Baozi Inn London Bridge shows that progress in the quality and range of London’s Chinese food is by no means guaranteed. That progress will only continue to thrive and march forwards if we reject such substandard fare and demand better. Anything less is not just a waste of everyone’s time, but a waste of potential too.
What to order: Dan dan noodles; soya chicken; perhaps the roast duck and char siu pork
What to skip: Three cups chicken; mapo tofu
Name: Baozi Inn
Branch tried: 34-36 Southwark Street, London SE1 1TU
Phone: 020 8037 5875
Opening Hours: seven days a week noon-23.00.
Reservations? essential on and around weekends.
Average cost for one person including soft drinks, but excluding tip: £25-30 approx.