[London] Meat-filled buns from Bao, Soho

Soy-braised pork belly, served with steamed buns, is one of China’s Jiangnan (encompassing Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou, Nanjing, Ningbo - areas in the southern Yangtze delta) regional cuisine specialties - my first introduction to that dish was at Westlake, a Chinese restaurant in Singapore which is very popular with my family back in the late-70s.

3 decades later, I had perhaps the best-known renditon of the dish at Lou Wai Lou, a 150-year-old dining institution in the ancient Chinese city of Hangzhou, perched on the edge of West Lake, that beautiful body of water which even Marco Polo had reminisced about. It was then that I realised where my Singapore childhood restaurant’s name originated from, and where it got the inspiration for its house special soy-braised pork belly dish - often attributed to Song dynasty poet, Su Dongpo (1037-1101) as the creator.

Fast forward to 2004, and the very same dish, well-known to the Chinese for centuries, was given a update by David Chang at his eponymous NY restaurant, Momofuku, and introduced to the New World.

10 years later, and in London this time, Bao did the same to the humble braised-pork-belly-in-a-steamed-little-bun dish - innovate and give the dining public more choices with variations upon the same theme. The peak dinner-time queue can be pretty daunting - over at its original Soho location, there can easily be one-hour waits - customers are told to queue by a lamp-post across the street from the tiny, cramped eatery, and escorted into the premises once the whole party is present and a vacancy is available.

What we had yesterday evening:
Started off with a couple of rather exotic cocktails - a bit weak though.
Koxinga - East London gin, yuzu & lemon:

Plastic City - Rhubarb vodka, sake, salted plum and grapefruit soda.

The food:

  1. Pig’s trotter nuggets.

  2. Beef consommé with radish.

  3. Classic bao - soy-braised pork, sprinkled with peanut powder. Pretty unusual take (for me) on a classic dish by its inclusion of finely-crushed peanut (a hint of its Taiwanese slant). Coriander leaves are strangely missing from this rendition - whilst I heard that the 3 founders are of Taiwanese origins, I suspect they are probably British-born, as their tastes have obviously changed and pretty different from native Taiwanese. Whilst this bao is the best-tasting item I had that evening, it’s scarcely something I’d come back for.

  4. Fried chicken bao. Very interesting modern take - the chicken was covered with breadcrumbs and deep-fried Western-style. It’s Southern US meets Eastern China. Tasty, but a bit too greasy for me.

  5. Lamb shoulder bao - braised, “pulled meat” rendition with a Xinjiang-style cumin kick.

  6. Pig’s blood cake, topped with soy-braised eggyolk confit. I wasn’t expecting the muesli bar-like texture, but it was tasty, and the eggyolk confit topping has certainly been improved as friends who’d had this previously had complained that it was too salty - not anymore.

  7. Confit pork bao. Frankly, I found this to be bordering upon the bland.

Overall, I think Bao’s cooking is more “British-Taiwanese” than authentic Taiwanese per se - flavours are too muted and there are missing ingredients here & there. But then, the whole concept works in the local context - judging from constant full house crowd and the perpetual queue outside - the queue across the street resulted from a complaint by their next door pub neighbour who resented the constant line outside their premises.

Bao Soho
53 Lexington Street, Carnaby
London W1F 9AS
Tel: 07769 627811
Opening hours: 12noon-3pm, 5.30pm-10pm, Mon-Sat (closed Sun)