I’m not quite sure how it is for other critics, but since I am not employed by anyone and am spending my own savings whenever I go out, I feel personally invested in the success of almost every restaurant I visit. At this point in time, I have no reason to be concerned about having a reputation to uphold or having to write in a certain way, but what I do care about, and care about deeply, is the quality of the food put in front of me.
I am still learning who I am as a critic, figuring out my identity as a writer of food, but I’d like to think that my ‘salty’ and exacting criticism, that one may come to read and even, perhaps, enjoy, comes from a place that prioritises flavour and that empathises, to a certain extent, with the chefs that prepare the meals. I have worked in and around kitchens before, and cook, for both parsimony and enjoyment, the complex dishes I cannot afford in my own time, so I consider myself more than aware of what goes into a spectacular dish and overall dining experience.
It is different if people recognise you as an established critic, for their business may depend on the kind of review you would give it. There is an often well-masked tension that is perceivable, between critic and server, from the time he or she sits down to when they leave. But because I travel incognito, and my opinions technically matter as much as the next picky Lucy or foodie Sally, I can be earnest and upfront about how I feel, merely incurring the wrath of my proprietarily English girlfriend in the process – if not for the sake of the restaurant, then for the selfish prospect of a better meal should I return.
Having booked a table for two at Bao Fitzrovia several weeks in advance, and read the positively commendatory reviews of such icons as AA Gill and Giles Coren, I arrived at the restaurant absolutely ready to have multiple violent and unrelenting foodgasms. If my expectations were ever higher, if I have ever had the feeling of such assured gastronomic ecstasy before, I do not remember it. It has been a long time since I have been able to enter a restaurant with an air of caution and tempered expectation.
The restaurant, with its minimalist chic, wood dominated interiors visible through large glass windows, gives of this aura of confident openness and accessibility. The pretentiousness normally associated with places that are highly acclaimed and somewhat exclusive was refreshingly absent. It has been awhile since I’ve seen a ceiling fan.
Two unassuming students just out of class could easily walk in followed closely by a glamorous couple from Kensington and both pairs would still feel equally welcome in a restaurant such as Bao.
There were no lines outside, which was a pleasant surprise. Almost every article or whisper about Bao spoke of how ridiculous the queues could get, but at around five in the evening, there were a lot of empty seats inside. Perhaps it was because we had booked for an early dinner, the only available times online, so I would wager that it get a lot busier as the day moved further along.
On entering, our host graciously offered us seating both upstairs, where we were, and downstairs by the kitchen to which Maddy, pre-empting my desire to catch a glimpse of the cooking, eagerly asked for the latter. We were lead down some stairs to cosy kitchen-adjoined dining area that was brimming with the savoury aroma of Asian cooking. We were sat close to the stairs, on uniquely designed white low backed chair, by the the edge of a long clean steel table attached to a large kitchen unit, beyond which all the magic was happening.
Except for the loud tipsy gang of gents on the table behind us, chortling about politics and arguing about flavoured sake, the staff and chefs bore physiognomies of concentration and focus that made us instinctively stiffen a little, reminding us where we were, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Though the setting allowed for us customers to have the opportunity to relax and have an ease about our time there, knowing that the servers and chefs took their job seriously, made me feel safe and taken care of be taken care of in a way that no kind and charismatic waiter ever could.
Our orders came in extremely quickly, in the order in which they were finished. I was literally startled by my confit pork gua bao as it descended over my shoulder barely five minutes from when I literally ticked it on and then handed in my menu. Magnificently appetising to look at, the glistening pork was moist and fall-apart tender, wearing its dark sweet and subtly savoury sauce like a well pressed suit at a wedding. The steamed pearlescent buns were cushiony and warm, gently caressing its contents with an affection that could only be demonstrated by true compatibility. I have to say that the surprise of finely chopped raw onion, neatly tucked in, gave a welcome sharpness to contrast the unctuousness of the rest of the filling.
The classic bao was the next palm sized plate to come to us. I didn’t particularly find the peanut crumble-festooned aesthetic of the bao appealing, but maybe it was because it frustratingly veiled all else beyond a shadow of saucy meatiness. As a textural component, however, the grainy powder was spot on, adding crunch to the silky richness of the braised pork and the piquancy of the fermented veg.
Two of our Xiao chi, which were small plates of Taiwanese appetisers, came next. The fatty saccharine eel interspersed with the astringent pickling of kimchi and the perfume of spring onions provided that ecstatically awakened that part of the palate that was yet dormant. Our second plate, boasting the crispness of brittle aromatic lovage and the beautifully battered mushrooms cooked to compositional perfection, allowed for delicate hums of pleasure when dipped in a jammy chilli onion sauce.
The rest of the baos and our final Xiao chi plate arrived within seconds of each other, after the empty plates before us were cleared. I must commend our server’s attention to detail regarding where each plate was to be placed because, before I had a chance to mention it, all the meat plates were put directly in front of me, xaio chi in the middle, and the seafood and vegetarian dishes opposite Maddy. All they had to do was watch me organise the table once for them to catch on. Such attention to detail should not go unnoticed.
By far the most temptingly luscious and decadently alluring bao that we ordered was the beef short rib with its tantalizingly shredded meat and the shimmering orb of egg emulsion which was nestled delectably on top. Perhaps my biggest mistake of the night was deciding to naively leave it to last instead of eating it as soon as it came.
Maddy’s daikon bao was probably my least favourite of the lot, though still an incredibly well executed dish. The crunchy panko-breaded daikon cutlet with lashings of vinegary hot sauce did interesting things with texture and flavour that I had never seen done in a vegetarian dish before.
The black cod bao, her favourite, was superb, delivering a delicately charred steamy flakiness that is a hallmark or fantastically cooked blackened fish; I was only able to have a tiny bit before Maddy wrenched it from my face. I was thus forced to transition to the cured mackerel and persimmon xiao chi, which was no bother at all. With the softly fragile sashimi-esque mackerel, its combination with the exotic persimmon, mild because of it being served exactly when ripe, met with a smooth puddle of a lightly spiced, mottled dipping sauce, set me up nicely for my much-anticipated pièce de résistance, the short-rib bao.
While the meat was still hot and juicy, dripping luxuriously when squeezed, the bun was ever so slightly deflated and had sadly settled at room temperature – a steamed bun with no residual steam remaining. It was not as if I had left it out for too long either. We were sitting almost literally in the kitchen, and I had only left it aside for a few minutes to pick at other things. This obviously meant that the bun had arrived not warm enough to sustain its heat, which was a damn shame. Take nothing away from the filling which was utterly transcendent, possessing one of the best flavour profiles I have ever had the pleasure of tasting. If it were a tree legged race, and the steamed bun and the short rib were partners, the filling still dragged the comatose bun across the finish line yards ahead of the competition.
I couldn’t help but mention it to our host, who seemed as puzzled and disappointed as I was. I could tell that this was probably the first time someone had actually criticised a bun, particularly the short rib. Initially I thought it was not worth mentioning, that the meal was fantastic enough to overlook a tepid bun, but to be disappointed at the end, however slightly, in the culminating moments of what would have been one of the best meals I’d ever had, I had to say something – it couldn’t be helped.
As I turned to give our thanks for our meal after paying the bill, our host was already in the middle of a stern discussion with the chef on our behalf. I felt bad, and even felt the urge to emphasise our satisfaction, but I knew it was not my place and what was happening was healthy. In a mediocre restaurant with no ambition for excellence, it easy to overlook the insufficiencies. But in a place like Bao, where everything seems so meticulously observed, even the slightest misstep is made apparent.
My pointing at the black dot on an otherwise white canvas, was not so I could emphasise the blight of the blot, but to merely erase it so that one may reach as godliness on a plate as one can. I wish this so much for Bao, who presented us with a truly memorable culinary performance.
31 Windmill St, Fitzrovia, London W1T 2JN
Xiao chi £3.75-5.5; Bao £4.5-5; Sides £2-3.5