I can’t even begin to tell you how many times my friends have mentioned Bao. I also can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked by the Soho branch to see a queue of people outside that stretches down the street and around the corner. The only thoughts in my head are that it can’t really be that good right? Nothing is that good. I’m not British; the act of queuing does not add to my enjoyment. Waiting in a queue makes me feel like shouting as if I were Peggy Gravel getting a phone call from a wrong number. Forget thirty seconds, these restaurants are stealing hours of my life. If they plan on repaying that, the food better be good. Like really good. Like the-best-thing-I’ve-put-in-my-mouth-in-a-month good. I basically think that if they are going to make me waste an hour of my life, the next hour better make up for it and more. It’s the opposite of drinking really: In that case, you’re stealing hours from your future life when you’re dealing with the throes of that epic hangover you have from the hours of double or triple the fun you had the night before.
I realize that’s a very high standard to hold some of these places up to. Places like The Breakfast Club and Le Relais De Venise definitely did not hold up to that sort of standard. This is why I generally only go to places that allow me to book. My friends have gotten used to my obsession with booking (I hope) as when I see them I want to be maximizing fun, not maximizing wasting time. If I can enjoy a meal on a similar level without the queue, I’m definitely maximizing the fun. Also with Bao, I had their buns before they were a brick-and-mortar place, and I always felt the buns were just a bit lacking and disappointing compared to other buns you can get in London (I’m looking at you Yum Bun).
But when Bao opened up a second branch in Fitzrovia, I was really tempted to try it out for lunch given the raves and as it’s quite close to my work. I thought if I got there when they opened, it might work out okay. When Yee Gan mentioned he wanted to try it, we decided to give it a go. He got there fifteen minutes early to queue (apparently he doesn’t feel like people are stealing his life), and I arrived bang on at noon. He was in the front of the queue, so we got in right away. (Thanks Yee Gan!) Surprisingly, the queue was already about 12 people deep, and it took all my strength not to roll my eyes or yell at them for being idiots. I guess I thought I should reserve my opinions on that until after I’ve actually tried the food.
It’s pretty minimalistic decorations inside. So that wasn’t overly exciting I have to say. Upstairs, pretty much you’re just sitting at a bar (which got quite uncomfortable before the meal was done). Apparently there is more seating downstairs, so in theory this place is bigger than the other one. It didn’t stop a queue from forming. I didn’t actually see them seat anyone downstairs while we were there, so maybe it’s only a dinner thing. Or a thing when the queue gets long enough that they can still have a queue after seating people downstairs. Because everyone knows if a British person sees a queue, they will wait in it, right? I mean that technique works with The Breakfast Club as the only time I went there were plenty of tables, but yet still a queue was going on. We decided on about five starters, three bao buns and the beef and rice bowl.
Or at least I thought they were starters. The Bao buns were the first to arrive. We chose the pork belly confit, the daikon radish and the black cod buns. When they arrived, they did look appetizing, but they also looked, well a bit small. I mean not just that the bun was small, but the bun to filling ratio was way off. The bao buns I’ve had from other places were just a bit bigger. And for a few pounds extra, two was all you need for a meal. So they definitely are keeping the small plates on the small side here. Well that is except the black cod bao, it had a nice big piece of cod in the bun, but it was more like a slider than a traditional bao bun.
Of the three, the black cod was definitely my favorite. It had a good amount of filling and great flavor. The daikon was probably my second, which was basically something like a crispy fried turnip cake in the bun, and I’m a huge fan of turnip cake. The pork bun was kind of boring actually, and really lacked any sort of wow factor for me. Next to arrive was the corn and the tomatoes (look at the vegetables, how healthy!), followed closely by the beef cheek nuggets and the crispy prawn heads.
Of these, the corn and the tomatoes were my favorite. The tomatoes were really tasty, but didn’t really involve a lot of cooking. I guess they let the freshness of the tomatoes speak for themselves. The prawn heads were full of fish flavor, and the sauce was a nice accompaniment. The beef nuggets were disappointing. They were really well cooked and soft, but way too salty. Not even from the salt on top in the photo, but the salt that was through the entire nugget. The sauce was really tasty, and unfortunately, one of the servers tried to take it away when Yee Gan was finishing it. It led to a bit of unnecessary commotion trying to get it back so he could finish his nugget with the sauce. Our last dishes arrived. They were the duck hearts, sanbei octopus and the braised short rib with rice.
Of these last dishes, the hearts were definitely my favorite. The sauce was great, and there was a hint of chili to just give it a bit of kick. I’d get these again in a heartbeat. The other two dishes were pretty lackluster. The octopus was well cooked, but the flavors in the dish just seemed to be a bit muddled and all over the place. None of them really gelled. The beef dish was kind of a bland pile of richness. There wasn’t much seasoning on anything, and it just felt like you were eating rich fatty food without any sort of complex flavors to add anything. Another very disappointing dish.
All in all, bao kind of lived up to my expectations in the sense that it’s very overhyped. I can’t really say it’s worth queuing for. (And I’m aware that my queuing was non-existent, but the food should still be up to that queue-for-food quality even if I manage to avoid it.) Maybe fifteen minutes queuing tops, but I know people who have queued for over an hour. I’m not sure why as there are some really stellar dishes (cod bao and duck hearts) and some good dishes (tomatoes and corn), but the rest of the dishes seemed a bit off as they were either over or under seasoned and just seemed rushed out. Maybe they are given the enormous queue that never seems to die down. To be fair, if someone forced me to queue for a restaurant or they would kill my family, I would probably choose Bao as one of the top contenders for that restaurant, but there’s really no way you’re going to get me to come back. The food just needs to be amazing. With such a small menu, I expect more dishes to be better, and they just weren’t. This place is all about the hype. And the service really needs to improve too. They were too eager to take our dishes, but not eager enough to keep us from asking for more tap water. I’m glad I got to give it a try, but given the enormity of better restaurants in London (that you can book!), I’ll be heading off to one of them before getting in a queue (or making someone else get in a queue…Thanks again Yee Gan). Oh speaking of Yee Gan, if you want to read his Baopinion of Bao in Soho, you can find it here.
31 Windmill St.