bao

Little Blackwood, Moseley

I am familiar with the dining room of Little Blackwood. It is a space I know well, like my work desk and the contents of my drinks globe. For much of the past 18 months I have spent time and money within its walls, under its previous guise as Cheval Blanc. I hold no shame in my love for its previous incarnation; I drank so frequently at it’s bar I had a stool with my name on, and I mourned its loss in a piece for a regional newspaper when it announced its closure. It gave me some of the very best months of my life. But I’m not one for legacies. The past is just that, a memory, one that slowly dwindles away like the contents of my wine glass. Little Blackwood is now here, tweaking the interior with new lights and mismatched furniture. The sense of deja vu may still be present in the wall murals and turquoise booths, but a new spirit is alive and present.

Now stepping away from my fatty liver and putting my food cap firmly on, I think that what sets chef Ben Taylor apart is a firm sense of identity, one that frequently veers to the East, doing so with purpose and confidence. And whilst the cooking occasionally takes a small misstep, it quickly corrects itself with a stride in the right direction. There is very little about the food here that is delicate; the dishes thud with spice applied through modern technique. We would eat three solid courses each but only after an amuse that fails in its intention of setting out his style. A prawn kissed with the lightest of heat on spiced lentils, with a piece of popcorn dusted in curry powder. The daal was good, the prawn of decent quality with the intestinal tract still in place, which is crap. The popcorn is misjudged – have you ever pined for prawn popcorn? Me neither. They are two textures that should never go together.

And then it all gets good. A mushroom and lemongrass broth is poured tableside into a bowl containing pickled onions, a smoked onion puree, and mushroom wontons. The broth is heady and deep in flavour with the suggestion of mirin lurking in the background. The wontons have the texture of a man who has folded a million of these before. A similar success was had with crab macaroni cheese, rich and molten, with the best bit a croquette of the more pungent brown meat. The balance of crustacean and dairy is a tricky one to get right. He nails it here.

A chicken ballottine main shows strong technique across the plate. The rolled breast meat stuffed with a delicate mousseline that is accurately seasoned and poached. A California roll on the side is not only a playful way of getting carbohydrate on to the plate, it also allows the chef to bring a little wasabi into the mix. It is this, along with a ginger gel and a jus flavoured with sake, that makes the plate sing, even if the pak choi has been show a little too much cooking time. On the flip we have a hefty short rib of beef that relies on classic French technique and no Eastern flavours. The meat is cooked until the bone slides cleanly away from the protein, with a Jerusalem artichoke puree and thick baton of carrot halved lengthways. The very best thing on the plate, indeed that we try all night, is the potato Anna, which is what happens to sliced spuds when you trust them in the company of butter for a long time. These have taken on the best bits of the cow, too, perhaps for being a shelf to the short rib whilst cooking. I don’t bloody know. What I do know is I dream of the day when I can sit on a stool and order a bowl of these potatoes, a good bottle of wine and some of the baos for dessert. Those bao, I’ll get to them now.

Dessert is, you may have guessed, bao, those oriental milk buns usually steamed, though here deep fried to a donut-like consistency. We take three because that particular ratio saves me two quid on the usual £4 price tag, and because I am a greedy bastard. All are very good; the banana and salted caramel, the peanut butter and jelly, and the blackberry and apple. Lovely concise bits of dessert, unlike anything else in the city, and perfect for a one man kitchen operation like here. No doubt others will try to copy it and good for them. I’ll read about it on Twitter whilst sat at the bar here with a bowl of potato Anna, three bao, and a bottle of Nyetimber. I may or may not be on my own. A man has needs and this particular man has a girlfriend not very good at sharing.

Service is kind and well meant, if a little raw. A broth is quite difficult to eat with just a knife and fork. But I liked it here, quite a lot actually. It seems an instant fit to the area, a casual bistro where a meal for two could be had for around £40 a head with wine. At that price point they can expect to see a lot of my business. Cheval Blanc is dead, long live Little Blackwood.

8/10

Little Bao, Hong Kong

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.

img_7993

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.

img_7994

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.

img_7995

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.

img_7999

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.img_8001

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.

9/10