Bao started as a small stall at Netil Market near London Fields on Saturdays. With popularity came the desire and opportunities to expand into an actual restaurant space. I had heard about the stall, but had never visited. I attempted for the first time last month, only to find that is was temporarily shuttered while they opened the restaurant.
Bao is now open and it’s absolutely fabulous. Located in SoHo, the food obsessed are all over it, with queues starting up about fifteen minutes prior to opening each day. Even after only a few weeks, Bao is a well-oiled machine, probably thanks in part to their business partners, the Sethi family, the team behind the perpetually packed restaurants Trishna, Kitchen Table/Bubbledogs, Lyle’s and Gymkhana. They understand what the people want and how to handle the crowds.
I arrived about fifteen minutes prior to opening for lunch and was seated shortly afterwards in the sleek, minimalist Japanese interior that reminded me a lot of Momofuku Noodle Bar, the place that launched the bao craze in NYC about a decade ago. They seated one party at a time, allowing them to settle in and order a drink before letting the next party enter. From my time managing restaurants, I cannot begin to tell you how smart this is.
Staggering parties is essential to allow the kitchen to stay ahead of the orders. I’m sure you’ve had the experience of waiting forever for food in a packed restaurant? Poor floor management. I personally would rather wait an extra few minutes outside in a queue than be seated along with forty other people and wait for an eternity for my first dish because the kitchen cannot handle the crush of orders from a suddenly full restaurant. Well played Bao.
The staff during my visit was super attentive, quickly taking and delivering drink orders and asking if I had any questions. They knew the menu and the ingredients very well and I could hear staff members talking about allergy restrictions with various menu items with the other tables. It’s always nice to see a well trained staff.
The menu at Bao is set up a little like a dim sum menu, where you mark off on the menu the items you want with the provided pencil. You keep the menu and can add more food later if necessary. Trust me, you will order more. The menu is broken down into small eats, bao and sides. I overheard a server saying she recommended three to five dishes per person, which I agree works well. The bao section is the star, but the small eats section is particularly interesting, with dishes like pig trotter nuggets and pig blood cakes. Certainly not going completely mainstream with their menu items.
Scallop, Yellow Bean, Garlic (£3.50)
A single scallop, served in its shell with roe attached. It was perfectly cooked and the pool of deep, rich umami flavor with hints of garlic was outstanding. The server even mentioned that you can drink the sauce from the shell afterwards. Of course, I couldn’t resist. I also immediately regretted not ordering more things from the small eats section. There’s always next time.
House Pickles (£1.50)
I wish this dish was a little larger, but it was still inexpensive and delicious. The pickled tomatoes, a first for me, were the best of the bunch. I could have eaten a whole pint of them.
Classic Bao (£3.50)
This is the Taiwanese classic, basically their far superior version of a slider. Braised pork is topped with a mixture of ground peanuts and sugar, inside a soft, pillowy steamed bun with some fermented greens and coriander. The fatty, rich pork, the crunchy peanuts and the sugar/fermented greens to help cut the fat. Perfect. Do not attempt to share the bao, because after the first bite, you will not want to hand it over to your dining mate. Just order two instead.
Fried Chicken Bao (£5)
My favorite bao of the day. The fried chicken was amazing, very similar to super crunchy Korean fried chicken (fried chicken is available in the small eats section too if you crave more chicken). The bun itself was made with taro root and sliced then toasted like a burger bun for a different spin on the traditional version. The bao was topped with kimchi and hot sauce. It definitely packed a spice punch, so if you are a little timid in the heat department, you might want to skip this one. I am a hot sauce junkie, so it was perfect for me.
Daikon Bao (£3.50)
The vegetarian bao option was tasty as well, with a solid block of crispy battered daikon radish stuffed into the steamed bun with pickles. It was crunchy yet delicate on the inside, starchy but not heavy. It’s a great veggie option and I am not even a huge daikon radish fan.
Sweet Potato Chips, Plum Pickle Ketchup (£3)
These chips were actually tempura battered, similar to the coating on the daikon radish. Light and crunchy, without ever tasting greasy. The level of crunch was high and outstanding. I ate this whole bowl shockingly quick, judging by the look of my server who had just dropped them off a few minutes earlier. It’s not my fault they made them so delicious!
Bao is one of the more exciting restaurants to open recently in London and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Like a rare jewel in the London restaurant scene, you can eat like a king for about £20/person without holding back. The vibe is relaxed and fun, the staff knowledgable and attentive without being obtrusive and the food will blow you away. If you find yourself in London, looking for a great meal, head over to SoHo, get in the queue and get ready to enjoy one of the best dining values in all of London. Oh, and order one more bao than you think is necessary. You’ll thank me later.
Status: Highly Recommended
53 Lexington Street
London W1F 9AS
Have you been to Bao? What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comment section below!