Sunday, 19 April 2015

Little Bao - fun and intimate casual dining

It sure can be hard getting into the cooler and more popular restaurants in Hong Kong, it's either walk up and wait or book some time in advance.  Oh, and make sure you turn up on time, 'cause if you're fifteen minutes late, your table is gone!  We'd booked into one of Sheung Wan's most popular new restaurants recently and were pretty excited, but some last minute schedule changes at work meant that we had to reschedule.  It was another catch up dinner with fellow blogger buddy JustCozItsTuesday, the last for a while before she heads back to Australia for a few months.

With our first plan in chaos, we decided that we'd have to take a chance with one of the aforementioned cool restaurants where it's first come first served.  We had a couple of targets in mind, interestingly enough all around our new favourite hang out spot in Central, the old PMQ.  First on our list was Little Bao, which as been pretty packed on the times when we've walked by, and we'd never been to before (well, Cynthia had been a few times).  Knowing how difficult it would be, SC cased out the joint and gave a heads up that three would be joining for dinner (hoping that it would make a difference).

Little Bao started it's life as a small stall in the Island East Markets, and focussed on traditional Chinese but mixing with the globe's biggest phenomenon in the last few years, burgers.  Chef and owner May Chow's concept of Chinese style bao topped with delicious and contemporary filling seemed to be the right idea at the right time, exploding into people's consciousness.  The next step of a restaurant was a logical step and the up-and-coming PMQ district in Soho was the perfect spot (a little foresight goes a long way).

Luck was on our side, after drifting towards Little Bao's big pink neon sign, we were early enough to score the last three seats at the bar, the absolute prime seats in the little dining room.  And I do mean little, there's room for about ten at the bar that overlooks the kitchen and then room for another eight or so squished up against a wall at the back.  Sitting at the bar, with an elbow in my back from the guy sitting next to me, we had a look over the placemat menus which were uncomplicated, yet contemporary.  Share plates, bao and desserts, with a couple of specials written out in texta - a dozen options all up.

In the time between sitting down and ordering, Little Bao had completely filled up, so our timing was impeccable, but it did mean that we had to get the meal underway and placed our orders. First thing first, the girl's ordered cocktails and SC's very refreshing Chris' Lemonade with 42 Below vodka, chrysanthemum, honey and rhubarb bitters combined well on a warm HK evening.  I didn't sample Cyntiha's Yuzu Leaf, made from Jim Beam bourbon, yuzu, maple syrup and sea salt, but from the lip smacking and repeat order, I'm guessing it was pretty good.

Our starters started flying out of the kitchen, with the lamb tartare up first.  Interestingly, in all the years we've been eating out, we've never come across lamb tartare, and I'm not sure why.  The Iberico lamb was infused with fermented beancurd mayo and takana and was sweeter than the beef variety.  Served with the lamb were some puffy tofu chips, which were perfect for scooping the lamb and gave a decent crunchy texture in the mouth.  Yeah, surprised we've never seen it before, but I have to say... Genius!

Loving bacon (who doesn't love bacon?) meant that the thick cut bacon, Lap-cheong style and tea-smoked was always on the cards.  Served with thinly sliced cabbage and sliced pickles, the instruction was to pick up some of the greens with each bite of the bacon.  The sweet and fatty bacon had a hint of smokey flavour and was quite rich, but the addition of the cabbage and pickle provided the acidity to balance out the flavours.  Those of you that read my blog regularly will by now shaking their heads with glee saying "I told you pickles rock"!  Hrumph, I'm not saying they suck completely - just in burgers!

Never one to pass up trying dumplings, we'd ordered the short-rib pan fried dumplings, which came sitting atop a celeriac coleslaw.  Filled with slow-braised organic OBE beef short rib, the dumplings were packed with a strong flavour.  I quite liked the dumplings, but found the beef inside to be just a little dry, perhaps as a consequence of the cooking process.  The coleslaw helped a little, but I think the addition of a dipping sauce might have negated the slightly dry dumpling.

Our last share plate was the hot chicken, which I knew would have been a risky proposition due to my newly acquired fear of Szechuan spices...  The chicken drumsticks looked amazing on the plate, all golden crispy and brown, but I knew that in that batter crust was a heat that would 'knock my socks off'.  Cynthia and SC confirmed that there was a bit of heat, so I set about peeling off that lovely looking golden batter to expose the succulent and still moist chicken underneath.  The smiles of joy confirmed that the girls loved the hot chicken and I was pretty impressed with my skinless chicken, but I think I made the right move (for me) in peeling the Szechuan spices off...  When I licked my fingers clean at the end, the top of my head almost exploded from the heat!

Right, starters out of the way, it was time to order our bao, the house specialty.  With a couple of different options to choose from, ranging from hot Szechuan chicken, through to a vegetarian option, we kept it pretty simple and traditional.  Bao, in simple terms are Chinese style hamburgers, filled with all sorts of goodness but instead of western style buns, steamed buns are used, which are a little sweeter.

Cynthia and I had gone for the pork belly bao, consisting of slow-braised pork belly, leek and shies red onion salad covered in sesame dressing and hoisin ketchup.  The soft and sweet braised pork belly was great, but I really think there should have been more, it seemed like only two bites and the pork was gone.  While the balance of the bao worked when the main ingredient was present, I found the texture of the steamed bun a little tough to swallow on it's own.

SC's choice was the grass fed organic beef bao, with tomato jam, roasted onion sesame mayo, shish and cheddar cheese.  It was very much a Chinese take on a traditional burger and looked the goods.  Loads of melted cheese dripping off the side of the thick and perfectly medium rare beef patty.  It was big though, really big and SC struggled to get a bite in, so it ended up being quite messy (in fact, most of the bao was scooped up off the plate).  It ended up being too much for SC, so I gladly pounced on the the mess and gobbled the rest up.

Dessert time and we all eagerly awaited our dessert bao to arrive.  Sitting at the bar, right in front of the team of chefs putting our meals together, we'd been watching the desserts being made all night.    It was quite an enterprise, with the deep fried steamed buns needing to cool a little before the ice cream was added and served.  To say it had increased our desire for dessert had been an understatement!  There were a couple of options listed on the menu, and a few more on the specials list.

My choice was the LB salt ice cream bao with caramel, which essentially was salted caramel dessert, with a twist.  Given the combination of deep fried buns and ice cream, I decided that the best way to eat my bao dessert was quickly.  Scooping up my bao, I finished it off in four big bites, which did give me a little brain freeze, but spared me the issue of a melting and messy dessert (which happened to the girls).  There was a subtly to the salt ice cream, sure I could taste it, but it did get a little lost with the caramel and I'd certainly have appreciated just a little more salt flavour (but it is a fine balance, too much and it would be inedible).

SC went for the green tea ice cream with condensed milk, which went down a treat, but lets be honest, anything with condensed milk rocks!  We had a long discussion about our childhood memories of sucking back on tubes of condensed milk, so it's always a smart move including something that induces those long lost memories!

We were having such a great time at Little Bao, we didn't notice the passing of time, but eventually had to give up our seats when we couldn't ignore the crowd of people waiting to get in any longer.  Reluctantly we gave up our seats and left.

It had been a really interesting night on a couple of levels.  Sitting at the bar and watching the food being prepared is always awesome and the team of chefs were engaging and fun to watch.  We'd received a heap of good advice and recommendations and by interacting so closely with our chefs, the feedback loop was instantaneous, they could see the look of delight on our faces as we dug in.

Bizarrely, there was a FoodMeUpScotty fan having dinner at Little Bao too, it was quite strange but I was only too pleased to have a selfie taken.  Being so new to HK, I'd not expected to bump into anyone who knew I was a blogger, let alone a fan who'd wanted to get a photo!

Little Bao is one of those places that we'll revisit often when looking for a quick bite to eat on the way to somewhere else.  Sure, its a cool little spot to hang out, but they also do take away, so you can grab a bao and sit outside on the street with a beer in hand if you choose, so winners all round!

Sweet branding - this little fellow is instantly recognisable
We were close enough to the chefs to touch them!
And they could certainly show us what they were up to
Watching out Bao being created
Yeah, its a pretty tight space but awesome as a consequence

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