Little Bao is so cool it could be a refrigerator. So on trend it could be a catwalk. So achingly hip it could be arthritic. And I am not alone in this opinion. This I know because eleven minutes after its 6pm opening time, a queue has formed outside the door where a lady with a clipboard organises swarms of people on benches, whilst we look on from our bar stools overlooking the chefs at work. A perk of English punctuality. People queue for a reason; these are not tourists like us, but those who know what they are getting. And they know what we now know – what you get at Little Bao is worth the wait. It is so so good.
For those uninitiated, a Bao is a steamed milk bun of Taiwanese origin, filled and then, if you are anything like me, quickly devoured. You don’t need to go to Hong Kong for one – that would be an unnecessary expense – given that London has a restaurant group that specialises in them, and they can be found at numerous street food companies across the country. But we are in Hong Kong and we have hunted this down like it is the last Thylacine and found the small galley restaurant in the heart of Soho. Hip-hop plays, the chefs wearing sleeves of tattoos underneath the t-shirts bearing the logo. Its loud and visceral, pounding with youthful energy.
I will move on to the main event in good time, though first the sharing plates, each priced around the mid-teen mark when converted back to sterling. Dumplings, opaque on the underside and pan-fried to a blackened crisp on top, are filled with a beef short rib mixture that has been braised to a tangle of soft meat. The star of the dish is hidden underneath; a coleslaw of celeriac, not too distant in make-up from a remoulade, which adds a earthiness and crunch to the soft dumplings. Its a compelling piece of cooking, familiar, yet still a statement of intent. We fight over the last one.
Pork cheek is one of my favourite cuts of any animal, cheap, usually slow cooked, and packed full of taste. Here the meat had been roasted and then sliced to robust cuts of pig, each glistening with ribbons of rendered fat. The texture was denser, the meat still tender. A caramelised apple puree, smokey and with a hint of, I think, clove, was smeared around the edge. Ribbons of fennel spiced with cumin are a revelation. Who would have known that the anise funk of fennel could be tempered by the pepperiness of the cumin? Little Bao does, obviously.
And the bao’s? Cushioned pillows of milk, flour and yeast which are the ideal bland vehicle for the complex flavours inside. The pick of the three is the white fish in an ethereal tempura batter, with a sweet and sour tamarind sauce and lightly pickled fennel. Another has softly braised pork belly, dressed in hoi sin and balanced out with a red onion and shiso salad that is almost as good as the one with deep fried chicken, sharp with black vinegar and hot with Szechuan. Its like I imagine the best KFC Zinger burger tastes, only without the genetically modified chicken.
We finish on another bao, smaller in stature and fried to a golden crisp. Inside is a salted milk ice cream drizzled with a caramel sauce. Whoever thought of this has a mind of pure filth and should become my new drinking buddy with immediate effect. Remember what I said about not having to go to Hong Kong for Bao? I take it back. Forget the Christmas presents for the aunt you don’t like and book yourself a flight.
This being Hong Kong its maybe a little more than we would expect to pay at home. The Bao’s are just under a tenner each, cocktails around the same price. I leave with a bill of just under a hundred pound, which may seem expensive given the casual nature of the restaurant, but seemed very fair to me. Its a place I could have happily stayed in and indulged in all night, though it was only right that we stepped outside and gave the next in the queue their turn. It may be little by name but the flavours here are massive.