Thursday, September 27, 2018

Not So Little Anymore

We went on an impromptu dinner date on a Monday evening at Chef May Chow’s Little Bao at its new branch at Causeway Bay (their flagship restaurant, I was told). They have been hosting their friends and families for trials before they officially opened later this month, and we were glad they considered us as such so we could get a sneak preview of the new venue and the new menu before the crowd sets in to this ever popular joint.

While I could describe the original Little Bao near Soho as cozy and more like a hipster hangout with its funky décor and music and the general vibe, this new branch, located at the fringe of the high street shopping area of Causeway Bay, definitely caters more to the mainstream clientele, with a storefront facing the main street (though the entrance could be a bit tricky to find, round the corner from what the address seems to suggest), a much bigger space now with normal chairs and tables (unlike the Soho one with only counter seats), and a more spacious open kitchen so it felt much less hectic with a bigger team working behind. The place, with counter-type tables and the open dining area, did remind me of a small American town diner type of restaurant, sans a jukebox on the table and replacing the bottle of Southern hot sauce with the artisan chili sauce from the local Yue Kwan Yik shop. And one thing did remain the same - the pink neon sign with its cute logo still hanging prominently at the door.

We didn’t get to try the full menu this time with only a fixed “tasting menu” option available during the trial period, but we were told the dishes served were like a showcase of what would be to come on their regular menu at this new branch with both lunch and dinner services - another first for this new branch.

To start we had a few dishes marked as “Small Shares” and “Large Shares”. For ours they all looked similar in terms of portion so I assumed it was adjusted for the two of us. Among them my favorite was the scallop ceviche, with a bowl of cured diced scallops mixed with pickled fennel and cilantro and served with deep-fried dumpling skin. It’s the perfect snack with good acidity, hint of umami and interesting contrast of textures.

The shrimp tacos – one of the items listed as “Large Shares” – were based on a similar east-meets-west concept, with fried shrimp wonton served with a drizzle of Szechuan peppercorn oil, pineapple salsa and house-made guacamole. Think Canto (as in the deep-fried wonton) meets Mexican (as in the garnishes). Those were fun snacks to start, with or without one of the mixed cocktails on the menu. Only non-alcoholic cocktails were served for the soft-opening menu (presumably because the liquor license was not ready yet), but they let us bring our own bottle, so we experimented by pairing with a bottle of sweet umeshu (Japanese plum liquor using super-ripe plum infused in sake)

Of course, the Baos – steamed Chinese man-tou buns – have always been the signature items of the restaurant. I suspect the two we tried were similar to the ones served in its Soho branch, and they were outstanding as usual. And having a bigger kitchen meant they have a proper steamer capable of making more buns at a time, so they all came out piping hot and fresh. The pork belly bao was served with a thick slice of braised pork belly with sesame mayo, hoisin ketchup and shiso leek salad as filling, and there’s this subtle savory-sweet flavor playing with the awesome fatty texture from the slice of pork. And I was blown away by the Fried Chicken Bao, one served with a deep-fried “nugget” of the local “Yellow Hair Chicken” (or 三黃雞, known for its extra flavorful skin) and what I liked most was the Shanghainese black vinegar glaze and Szechuan peppercorn mayo brushed on top. I love that tangy sweet flavor with a subtle spicy kick from the peppercorns.

For desserts, of course it’s the crowd-favorite ice-cream sandwiches made with the deep-fried buns. It’s hard to say which one was my favorite, between the green tea icecream and condensed milk sauce, or the salted icecream with caramel sauce. If I had to choose, I probably would pick the latter, as I normally prefer the green tea icecream to be even stronger in flavor, closer to that like a bowl of traditional matcha. The salted icecream just worked perfectly well with the caramel sauce and with the bun crispy outside and fluffy inside.

Little Bao has been an exciting concept when it first opened (or even before when she started at a small stall at a farmers market), with an unique take of street food mixing local and western cooking styles, and we were happy that it’s growing strong (and little no more) and Chef May and her team spreading their wings everywhere. What an inspirational story, and for us, this new branch just meant it’s easier for us to come more often for a cheerful bite without the long hike up to Soho and dealing with the long waiting line in a small space. That's good news.

(Meal was based on a special menu available for limited time only)

When? September 17 2018
Where? Little Bao, Shop H1 G/F, 9 Kingston Street, Fashion Walk, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong
Menu Highlights? Fried Chicken Bao, with black vinegar glaze, Szechuan peppercorn mayo, coleslaw

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