That difficult fifth
album restaurant is nonetheless a hit
Disclosure: on one of my visits, a single dish was offered for free. This offer was not solicited and was accepted out of politeness.
Like albums and movies, restaurant sequels are tricky to pull off without flopping like an orca ejected from a plane. A successful restauranteur can aim for a template that can be replicated at scale – assuming quality control can be maintained, which is never a given. The other route is to give each new location its own identity with differing menus, which can be just as difficult but in different ways. Just ask chef Neil Rankin, whose initial plans for different menus for each one of his Temper restaurants had to be abandoned in favour of a standardised offering based on the Temper Soho taco menu (and then altered even further since then).
Bao, one of the pioneers of and standard-setters for Taiwanese-style gua bao in London, has largely opted for the unique menu route. Each Bao restaurant has, with the partial exception of its now-closed Fitzrovia branch, loosely adapted a different (and usually under-appreciated) aspect of East Asian dining – from Taipei-style bars to Japanese-style kissaten.
Taiwanese beef noodle soup, which Bao Noodle Soup in Shoreditch serves alongside its core selection of gua bao, is most definitely underappreciated. Previously only available at a handful of other restaurants in London that I know of, some of which have closed, it hasn’t really developed the same fandom as other noodle soups, such as ramen, pho or laksa. Heck, bun bo hue probably has a higher profile.
Noodle soups at Bao Noodle Shop
If Bao’s Taiwanese beef noodle soup had been as lifeless and one-dimensional as other attempts at this dish in London, then Bao Noodle Soup would have been in deep trouble. Thankfully, they were both bountiful bowls of beauty.
The overall best of its two versions is the Taipei-style version which resembled a version I tried in Kenting. The lightly peppery and spicy soup, warming enough to tickle one’s tonsils rather than singe them, also had a deeply soothing and rich moreishness. This was enhanced even further by the optional extra of cured egg yolk, served on the side and the first of Bao’s skillful alterations to the usual Taiwanese beef noodle soup formula.
Don’t spoon all of the yolk into the soup though. Save some of that golden richness as a dipping sauce for the ruggedly muscular hunks of beef. The dense yet unctuously tender cheek and shortrib were richly decadent, the latter especially so. Although not often found in Taiwanese beef noodle soups, or at least not in the versions I saw in Taiwan, they were both so luxuriantly enjoyable – especially when slicked with cured egg yolk, that I barely cared. Only the thin, somewhat soft wheat noodles let the side down.
The Tainan-style variant was both similar to and different from the Taipei-style version in equal measure. The noodles had improved somewhat with modestly more tanginess and bouncy spring in their bite. The soup’s moreishness was more subtle, akin to a shio-style ramen broth – but almost too subtle for its own good, something which not even the cured egg yolk could fully cure.
The beef was once again a divine testament to the bovine arts. Cut wafer-thin, similar to what you might see at a good pho restaurant, yet more tender than a lingeringly hesitant first kiss. Every delicately thin slice was delightfully moreish – almost like jamon, but with a light beefy tang. Some slices were even more delectable due to delicate halos of fat. Their umami was even more pronounced when dunked and swirled in the now tare-esque egg yolk. The beef was in such a class of its own that it’s no exaggeration to say that this was a beef dish with a helping of noodle soup, rather than a beef noodle soup.
Vegans haven’t been left out. Bao wisely decided not to ape beef noodle soup with a plant-based meat substitute, choosing instead to lean into what makes vegetables great. The deep black broth was apparently based on kelp and had a bold miso-esque umami, but with a cleaner aftertaste. Nutty sesame seeds added another layer of flavour to the inky soup.
The noodles were somewhat thicker than those that graced the beef noodle soups and noticeably springier too. But the real star of this bowl was the deep-fried aubergine. Each thin, crunchy carapace cradled plump aubergine pieces that had been cooked just-so. The squidgy, juicy eggplant were almost fruit-like in their sweetness – enjoyable not just in their own right, but as a counterpart to the moreishness of the broth and the crunch of the batter. An unexpected delight, from the first slurp to the very last.
Gua bao at Bao Noodle Shop
Given Bao’s years-long track record, as documented in previous reviews on this site, it should come as no surprise that its gua bao were close to flawless. The buns used in all the gua bao were pillowy soft and tore apart easily with just a tug of one’s teeth. The Classic saw the umami of fatty pork neatly bolstered by a nutty dusting of crushed peanuts.
The iberico pork bao wasn’t a repetitive reprise of the classic. Deep-fried, the crisp coating kept grease away from both its own fine-crumbed surface and the springy, meaty, lightly earthy pork underneath. Hoi sin-style sauce added a tangy richness, further setting it apart from the Classic.
The heart of the fried chicken bao was moist, chunky and almost gamey chook encased in a karaage-style batter. Bubbly, evenly crisp and grease-free, it’s an attraction in its own right. So much so, that the kimchi wedged in was hardly necessary.
The centrepiece of the prawn croquette bao wouldn’t be out of place in a dim sum basket. Crisp, fine-grained and grease-free batter tore apart to reveal a clump of prawn pieces that were somehow simultaneously bitty and blump. Its cumulative moreishness made the pickled cabbage and oddly tartar-like sauce largely unnecessary.
The daikon bao is the only vegetarian gua bao on the menu. Even so, this was no second-best, runner-up fob-off for meat-dodgers. The same neatly-constructed batter from the prawn croquette bao was used here to hold a pillowy soft cuboid of daikon that was almost taro-like in its starchy sweetness. It was delightfully scoffable.
The Horlicks ice cream bao has been a staple of almost all of Bao’s various branches and with good reason. The warm, crisp then puffy soft pastry bao is what Krispy Kreme doughnuts aspire to be when they grow up. Sandwiched inside was a thick yet smooth and light scoop of distinctively Horlicks-flavoured ice cream that was as bracingly refreshing and cold as it was unmistakably flavoursome.
Other dishes at Bao Noodle Shop
Bao Noodle Soup’s numerous savoury small plates should not be overlooked. Although the cull yaw mutton dumplings had been boiled, the skins were nonetheless thin, supple and soft yet sturdy. Pleated away inside was tangy, earthy, densely meaty mutton made even better by the puddle of lightly spicy sauce. Exceptionally pleasing.
I’ve rarely encountered a lu rou fan in London worth bothering with, although to be fair I haven’t been explicitly searching. That makes Bao Noodle Shop’s version all the more welcome. The umami of the minced yet meaty pork was neatly bolstered by the complimentary umami of the salty, gently chewy and almost jerky-like fish floss. Soft, fluffy small-grained rice was no less important, providing the canvas for the artistry of the pork-fish floss pairing. Only the surprisingly meh fried egg let the side down.
Deep-fried tripe was evenly crunchy and remarkably grease-free, although the crunch detracted from the natural mouthfeel of the offal. The sprightly, near zesty dip made from spring onions almost made up for this flaw. Almost.
Surprisingly, standalone Taiwanese fried chicken wasn’t quite as crisp, crunchy and bubbly as the battered chook used in the fried chicken gua bao. Although softer and less distinctive, it was still discernibly within the karaage tradition and was enjoyable enough with its touch of ginger. The sauce added little though.
Bits of smoky eel and cool cucumber felt and tasted like natural partners, especially when bound together by the gentle spicy heat of the chilli and garlic sauce. It was still a shame that the eel pieces were outnumbered by cucumber.
Thin, oil-free and evenly crisp spring rolls were filled not with cheap veg, but earthy, tangy Ogleshield cheese. Its lactic charms were complimented by the boldly distinctive taste of the coriander sauce. These delectable morsels were arguably too small though, scarfed and digested in a flash.
Bao’s dan dan noodles – its most explicit outing into Sichuanese cooking yet – wasn’t the resounding success one would hope for. Relatively springy wheat noodles were draped in a sauce that packed the cumulative numbing mala spice of Sichuan pepper. The vegetal tang of the tofu was helped along by bits of preserved cabbage, but there wasn’t really enough of either. Still, a respectable effort.
Non-alcoholic drinks at Bao Noodle Shop
If you’re a teetotaller like me, then Bao Noodle Shop’s unusually inventive non-alcoholic beverages will be especially appealing. Rhubarb soda was tangy and sour, much like an unsweetened lemonade but not as citrusly astringent. While not especially rhubarb-like, it was still refreshing.
Sour plum juice, on the other hand, wasn’t refreshing or sour enough. Especially compared to the stuff you can often get in some Chinese supermarkets.
Lemon iced tea actually tasted of tart lemons rather than just sugar, although the tea part was neither here nor there. The mildly creamy foam was fun, but ultimately inconsequential.
Almond iced tea combined floral sweetness with light tannic hints. The distinctive almond taste came from hench cubes of almond jelly which never became overwhelming enough to outstay its welcome. Think nut milk, rather than marzipan, and you’ll get along with the jelly part of this multilayered iced tea just fine.
Unlike some other comparable drinks, such as commercial versions of Caribbean peanut punch, the peanut milk here was nutty and refreshing without being too heavy on the palate.
Raspberry Yakult tea wasn’t especially tannic, but the reasonable levels of crisp fruity sweetness and tangy milkiness were surprisingly pleasing in a grown-up Yoplait kinda way.
Bao Noodle Shop is a resounding success, doing justice to Taiwanese beef noodle soup in Bao’s own inimitable style. If more London restaurant sequels were as spirited and vivacious, then eating out in this town would be a far less hazard-prone endeavour. Although I do wonder what financial, logistical, creative or diner demand limit there might be to Bao’s ongoing success, that’s a question for another time. The question you should be asking yourself is not whether you should eat at Bao Noodle Shop, but how often.
What to order: Almost everything…
What to skip: …with the possible exceptions of the fried chicken and dan dan noodles
Name: Bao Noodle Shop
Address: 1 Redchurch Street, Shoreditch, London E2 7DJ
Phone: none listed
Opening Hours: Tuesday 17.00-23.00; Wednesday-Thursday noon-15.00 and 17.00-23.00; Friday-Sunday noon-23.00. Closed Monday.
Average cost for one person including soft drinks: £35 approx. (£45-50 approx. if you push the boat out)