The restaurant: BAO Borough, 13 Stoney St, London SE1 9AD
“They’ve got this whisky-soda tap — only two in London!” “There’s a slick KTV room I must book for my next birthday” and “Curried cheese bao — now that’s a hangover cure”. I’ve been telling everyone about BAO. Though what’s better than word-of-mouth to make you visit a place? BAO Borough is the third site of the Taiwanese restaurant that started life in Soho before opening a branch in Fitzrovia and settling into a third beside Borough Market. After a visit to the Fitzrovia joint a couple of months back, we sauntered in expecting a charming repeat of the menu in more relaxed pub-like surroundings. In fact, despite the signature bao, the place decor and menu were very different. With its karaoke room, grab-and-go hatch, and a bar piled with fresh fruit to emulate a Taiwanese market stand, the BAO founders have plucked out some of their favourite aspects of Asian culture, while the menu is filled with throwbacks to BAO’s street vending days.
Bao-Hi Lemon Tower cocktails made from a Suntory highball machine that doles out whisky and soda pumped the same bubbles as champagne are a must-order. Served with a frozen lemon tower and mixed salted citrus cordial, it’s smokey, sharp and simple. The table beside us kept knocking back QQ-Hi, a lager and grape liquor mix topped with aloe vera foam — “it’s sweet, but surprisingly very good!”
The menu is divided into steamed buns, xiao chi (small plates) and grills with small, intricate illustrations of each of the plates. Inspired by Asian late-night grill establishments that are popular with commuters, nothing is too fiddly or fancy and the dishes arrive quickly. Hot sauce clung to Taiwanese fried chicken, which with its non-greasy coating appeared dry — how deceived we were in biting into crispy, succulent chicken pieces, squirted with just the right amount of spicy sauce. Glazed tofu was desirably crisp on the outside and spongy in the centre, and served swimming in sticky, sweet and balsamic soy sauce. One of those deep-fried bao you’ll only see on the Fitzrovia wouldn’t have gone a miss for dipping here. Skewered scallops grilled in spicy beef butter were rich with a winning flavour combination of fishy beef gravy.
The classic bao stuffed with braised pork, sweet peanut butter powder, and a teasing slither of coriander was a glorious way to ease into things. Beef short rib, another sweet and slow-cooked filling, was served with a dollop of egg emulsion — think thinner than mayonnaise and without the sourness of Hollandaise — and fermented cucumber that tried to cut through the sweetness of the marinade. Curry cheese bao was an unexpected winner: a thick chunk of fried cheddar — the leftovers from Neal’s Yard — melted into tiny cheese curdles with a crisp outer coating was topped with thick, lightly spiced curry sauce and sweet red peppers.
BAO Borough gives a good snapshot of Taiwanese cuisine and culture beyond steamed buns. If you’re lost about London Bridge and could murder an aloe vera-topped lager, they’ll sort you out. If that seems unlikely, drop in for the pleasantly fluffy steamed buns, the champagne-bubbled cocktails and to book your slot in the karaoke room.
For more date night inspiration, click here.