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Ker-bao! Tasty Taiwanese explodes onto Haymarket

26 October 2018 Billie Manning

Pinned between Planet Hollywood and Spaghetti House in a culinary rose-between-two-thorns situation, Baby Bao, with its narrow, long interior, almost looks like the joints on either side are slowly squashing it.

It would have been very tempting for the restaurant, I’m sure, to leave an inch of space between diners in order to cram as many in as possible. But luckily, and unlike a lot of new openings, Baby Bao seems to realise that contact with the outer thighs of strangers does not a fun dining experience make, and the tables stand well spaced in a tidy line that would make Madeline and friends jealous.
 
Baby Bao is Haymarket’s new Taiwanese offering, specialising in bao buns and other quick and tasty options. Helmed by chef Adrian Geddes, the street food pop-up has left Brighton, where it was much adored by all accounts, to try its luck as a restaurant proper in the big smoke. The interior is chatty and relaxed, with warm lighting and a buzz of activity around the bar. The décor and staff are equally casually cool, all bare-brick walls, geometric gold candleholders and t-shirts with Baby Bao’s adorable logo. A brief sojourn downstairs proves a bit too quiet, and the lighting a touch assaulting, so it’s pleasing to move back upstairs to watch the bartender shake up a storm while he chats away to those awaiting a table.
 
The menu offers a killer list of cocktails with an Eastern twist, but we take up the bartender’s charming offer to mix something tailored to our tastes and the result is a stunningly fresh vodka-cucumber-wasabi concoction, which leaves the subtlest of pangs in the nose after a sip. Apparently, it’s a contender to become part of the regular cocktail menu. I am a self-confessed wasabi junkie, but it’s so good I feel a bit like running a change.org petition to increase its chances. The rose and lychee Gin Collins is sweet and mild, although any more rose would be pushing into perfume territory. The restaurant also has a huge beer selection, with Beavertown Brewery’s fare lining the walls.
 
In a place called Baby Bao, you would hope that the bao are good, and they are. The buns themselves are soft, milky white and pleasantly sticky. There are plenty of creative imaginings to choose from, and the menu is more vegetarian and vegan-friendly than most bao places that dot London’s streets. We go for the pork belly, the tofu and the panko squash. The pork belly and the tofu both come with hoisin sauce that’s as thick and sweet as your local takeaway’s, as well as a healthy dose of crisp, crunchy shallots and peanuts. The pork belly is lusciously tender, and the tofu, surprisingly, doesn’t get lost in the bun, but stays in a nice, firm steak. The panko squash bun incorporates a hell of a lot of strong flavours, with pineapple, coriander and pickled daikon – but it’s delicious, and vegetarian visitors certainly won’t be let down.
 
The sides are certainly not an afterthought here; the chicken wings are Baby Bao’s most popular order outside their buns. Marinated for 12 hours and then fried in the house spice, you can see why they’re popular. They’re a sort of essential wing - Plato’s chicken wing, if you will - and the British are a sucker for poultry. They’re hot and crispy and neither too salty or too sweet, although a damn sight more expensive for five than you would pay for something similar at Morley’s or Sam’s (depending on which direction you’re taking the Victoria line home).
 
Next up, recommended as ‘the unsung heroes’ of the menu, the sweetcorn and nori poppers are satisfyingly stodgy with a slice of lime adding freshness. They would have been a great, slightly more Taiwanese alternative to chips, had we not also got the chips, but no regrets there. Dark and fat and mouth-watering, the house chips are absolutely loaded with layers of that sweet hoisin sauce, paired with an ultra-savoury miso mayonnaise – one for anyone who loves committing the ultimate sauce sin of combining ketchup and mayo.
 
Dessert presented a chance for more bao, which we happily took up. This time they’re fried to create a hot, sweet doughnut that would have been reminiscent of the British seaside if it weren’t for the black sesame ice-cream sliding about inside it. The black sesame is paired with salted caramel, which is a lovely coupling.
 
You would certainly be lucky to wander unknowingly into Baby Bao, feet hurting from a day on Oxford Street, or before a venture into theatreland. Sure, you won’t be paying street food prices, and the service verges on chaotic at times, but it’s genuinely good food and drink from an innovative menu in a fun and welcoming environment – the owners should take a bao.

Baby Bao is open Monday–Saturday 12–11 and Sunday 12–10
66 Haymarket, London, SW1Y 4RF
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