Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Taking a "bao" - First Time at Little Bao

We thought we were probably the last people to visit Little Bao after all the hypes and words around town (both positive and negative ones), but we finally did it for the first time on an early Saturday evening. It's been almost 2 years since Chef May Chow set off the "bao" frenzy with her little outpost in Soho, not counting her experimental (but hugely successful) pop-up at the Island East Markets earlier. Since then, this no-reservation, counter-only restaurant with less than 15 seats has become one of the most sought-after dining spot, with waiting lines seen every day from 6pm til who-know-when, which was something that has put us off from going earlier.

In order to avoid the crazily long waiting time, we were told the best time to go would be either when it first opens or in late night past normal dinner hour. As it so happened we wanted to have a super early dinner on this day during the long weekend, we decided to try our luck by getting to the restaurant right before it opens at 6pm. Well no surprise there's a line there already with quite a few people by the time we got there, but at least we were still among the first group who could be seated once the door opens, so to us it was just an easy 20 minutes wait.

The restaurant was small, just as I have expected, but not as cramped as I originally thought. There were about a dozen seats around the L-shaped counter in front of the open kitchen, plus a few more seats at the back by the wall. The decor was basic, like a neighborhood diner, the open kitchen fits 3 people working somewhat comfortably and it also doubled as the bar. The seats were no comfy chairs but wasn't too bad either; while there shouldn't be any expectation of privacy, the seats weren't arranged as tight as you would get somebody's arm in your face.  

I was surprised the menu has good variety of dishes despite the small kitchen setup, and there were more than just "bao", the mini-burger served on Chinese-style steamed buns which the restaurant is most famous for. There were around 10 dishes meant for sharing, along with 5 different baos served as individual portions (including one vegetarian option). Special items were listed on the aluminum board above the kitchen, and there's also a pretty wide drinks menu featuring some cocktails, artisan beers and other usual suspects.

When the waiter dropped in to take our order, he suggested us to pick 2-3 dishes to share and then a bao each, just as a party of 2 normally would do. Of course, we ain't listen to any of it and almost "swept" the menu, ordering probably twice as much as the amount he suggested.

First to arrive was the yellowtail crudo, the only special item listed for the evening. The dish came with good portion - 6 thickly-sliced pieces of cured yellowtail lied on top of the sweet and citrusy soy-mirin marinate with preserved black bean vinaigrette and okra. Well I didn't taste much of the okra, but the rich black bean taste was just right to balance the acidity. It's like a ceviche with more complex flavors.

We saw the chefs preparing the Brussel Sprouts on the griddle as we were seated so we wanted to give it a try. The Brussel Sprouts were well-charred, served on a small deep bowl with splash of fish sauce and generous sprinkles of peanuts, chili and fried shallots. The dish was surely as appetizing to taste as it looks. It was quickly followed by the Short-Rib Panfried Dumpling. While the dumpling was delicious with the mildly-seasoned, slow-braised, tender beef wrapped inside dumpling skin and fried to perfect crispness on one-side on the pan, our favorite was actually the celeriac coleslaw served underneath, which went well with the dumpling and also on its own. I thought the dumplings were a bit too light in flavor, but there isn't anything a sriracha (labelled as "KY hawt" sauce on the table) couldn't fix. 

The wonderful LB Fries were next - the fries were deep-fried to extra crispness and coated with a sweet mirin glaze with coriander garnish. On the side it's the dipping sauce of kewpie mayo and roasted tomato sambal. I didn't know which brought out the best of which, but the combination was phenomenal. So good that we asked for more mayo and sambal, and have to stop the staff from taking the leftover sauce away, long after the fries were finished. Then I just kept spooning the sauces into my mouth when no one's looking - yes it was that good.

We thought it's a crime not getting our hands onto each of the baos on offer, so we just ordered (almost) all of them, with the exception of the vegetarian Sloppy Chan Bao. No offence to the vegetarians, but sacrifice must be made to save room for dessert and from the description it looked like the least interesting among all.

Many attributes the "re-invention" of bao, or steamed buns to Chef David Chang of Momofuku fame, who probably took clue from a traditional Taiwanese street food called Gua Bao (刈包). But Chef May presented her version in a slightly different way here. Gua Bao took its name from buns cut in the middle and stuffed with fillings like a taco (the name literally meant "Cut Bun" in Taiwanese), but at Little Bao, the baos were presented like a mini slider instead. And while Gua Bao only involved steaming of the white buns, here it was slightly toasted on the griddle before being assembled.

My favorite among the four baos we tried was the Szechuan Fried Chicken. Of course, anything made of fried chicken is always a crowd-pleaser, but what I appreciated most was the Szechuan pepper-infused mayo giving it a mildly tingling sensation on the tongue without being overly spicy at all, which seemed to work well with the rich piece of chicken deep-fried with a beer batter prepared right in front of us.

I did shrug at first sight of the Beef Bao when it's landed in front of us. "It just looked like a regular burger with melted cheddar cheese, so what's the big deal?" I thought. But turned out it's nothing but regular, and what especially made a difference was the presence of the shiso leaf sandwiched in between the juicy beef patty cooked medium done and the mixture of tomato jam and roasted onion sesame mayo, giving the bun an interesting, somewhat exotic after-taste.

The waiter seems a bit shocked when we told him we wanted all the Dessert Baos... "you sure? there were 3 different types!" Well what I didn't tell him was originally I was thinking getting TWO OF EACH so we didn't have to split. The Dessert Bao was essentially the upgraded version of Chinese Deep-fried Mantou (炸饅頭), often eaten with condensed milk. Here it's served with a bloc of icecream of various flavors in the middle with generous drizzles of sauces. I personally liked the two on the menu most - the salt icecream with caramel sauce and green tea icecream with condensed milk. Off the menu there's also another choice of dark chocolate icecream served with candied kumquats, but since I wasn't exactly a chocolate person I wasn't overly impressed, though it was still very decent.

So my after thoughts overall? Well, we loved the food here and thought it largely lived up to its hype. We came here not only for just another weekend dinner but in a way to get my FOMO feeling quelled and curiosity satisfied. The unusual combination of east-meet-west styles using familiar ingredients was lined up perfectly and was eye-opening. Food was consistent, staff was friendly and cheerful which made all the difference too. It's a perfect spot for a casual, quick bite either early or late at night and I would love to come back every now and then, especially for those cute little dessert baos.

But I can also understand what the naysayers thought of Little Bao - that it's just badass street food with exorbitant price tag catered for the rich hipster crowd. Well, on face value it may be somewhat true (our dinner tab did come to over HK$500 per person - not the amount we would normally pay at casual diners), but looking at a few imitators around town that quickly came and vanished, all the while there's always a waiting line outside here every day of the week, I think Chef May's Little Bao team deserves more credit than being dismissed simply as just another overpriced joint. 

More pictures on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/g4gary/sets/72157649989389914/

When? May 2 2015
Where? Little Bao, G/F 66 Staunton Street, Central, Hong Kong
Menu Highlights? LB Fries, Szechuan Chicken Bao, Dessert Bao with Green Tea Icecream and condensed milk
Web: www.little-bao.com

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