Sunday, 1 November 2015

Little Bao, Central, Hong Kong (Alissa and Don Eat Asia)

Although a long time favourite order at Dim Sum restaurants and as a snack throughout Asia, the humble steamed bun or Bao has reached even greater heights of ubiquity in the post-Momofuku culinary world. The Momofuku Pork Bun must be one of the most heavily copied and replicated dishes of modern times, with entire restaurants and menus almost obsessively based around variations on the steamed bun theme, such as Wonderbao in Melbourne. Given its almost viral spread and continuing influence over a decade since the opening of Noodle Bar, it begs the question - have we reached Peak Bao? Not yet, if Little Bao in Hong Kong is anything to go by.

Located on Staunton St in the very vibrant SoHo District, Little Bao is the brainchild of chef May Chow. Befitting the Little Bao's very on-trend Asian fusion menu, the small restaurant's open kitchen oozes hipster cool and great branding throughout.

Being named Little Bao, its fairly obvious that steamed buns are the restaurant's focus, however they serve a number of share plates as well. The first we sampled was their take on "Mac and Cheese" - steamed rice rolls with Mentaiko Cheese Sauce. This was an immensely clever dish, with the Korean-style Rice Rolls perfectly filling the roll of the Macaroni in the original, while bringing its own unique texture to the table. Brilliant. The Cheese Sauce was superb too, being as creamy and cheesy as you'd want from a good Mac and Cheese with a nice and highly suitable chilli kick. Definitely worth an order, and something I want to try making at home.

Although we nearly ordered the Truffle Fries because of our noted love for all things Truffles, we decided to try their Short-Rib Pan-Fried Dumpling instead. The Fry-Steamed dumplings were similar to Gyoza, with the well made dumpling skins displaying a pleasing crispiness. The Slow-braised Organic OBE Beef Short Rib encased within reminded Alissa of a really excellent Croquette due to the softness of the braised and flavoursome rib meat. The Celeriac Coleslaw's mild celery taste combined with the dressing to provided creaminess and freshness that went surprisingly well with the Dumplings. Alissa and I found this dish particularly delicious with a squirt of the restaurant's house Sriracha, here dubbed 'Hawt Sauce'.

Alissa and I agreed that the Szechuan Fried Chicken Bao with Chinese Black Vinegar Glaze, Szechuan Mayo and Coleslaw was the best of the two savoury Baos we ordered. Firstly, the burger-shaped bun was pillowy soft, while having been toasted on the inside. The fillings were even more impressive. The Fried Chicken was as crispy as a KFC finger lickin' offering, except way better due to the distinctive pepper and citric note from the Szechuan, bolstered by the Szechuan Mayo. The vinegary flavour of the Black Vinegar Glaze was a brilliant Barbecue Sauce analogue, with the freshness and crunch of the Coleslaw finishing it off beautifully. This was a dish that was as delicious as it was clever. The only complaint I would make was that it was perhaps a bit slopping to eat, but when a dish is this tasty, a bit of a mess can be overlooked.

The other savoury Bao we ordered was the Pork Belly Bao - Slow-braised Pork Belly, Leek & Shiso Red Onion Salad, Sesame Dressing, Hoisin Ketchup. Being Pork Belly, this was closer to the Momofuku Pork Bun, but was a successful take on this modern classic due to the unique Burger Bun-style format. The Bun was the same excellent bun as the Szechuan Fried Chicken Bao, with the juicy and unctuous Pork Belly within clearly braised or roasted ahead of time and then given a final sear on the grill while being brushed with a tasty glaze. The pickles gave the dish a nice vinegary kick, while the use of Leek and Red Onion in the salad gave the dish a nice oniony bite.

Having had cocktails before the meal at G&T Bar, I had no room for dessert, however I tried a bit of Alissa's LB Green Tea Ice Cream Bao. I have to admit being a bit skeptical of dessert Baos however this was absolutely amazing, with the Bao Buns fried like a Doughnut and served warm. The filling of Matcha Ice Cream had a nice bitterness balanced out by the sweetness of the Condensed Milk drizzled on top. The result was one of the best ice cream sandwiches I've ever sampled, and I would recommend anyone going to Little Bao to save a little room for one of these delectable morsels.

The Verdict: Excellent +
Given the amazing popularity of the Bao and the amount of restaurants dedicated to the steamed bun that are really just minor variations on the Momofuku theme, it was great to try a Bao-oriented restaurant that brought a fresh and interesting perspective to this increasingly ubiquitous dish. Beyond the cosmetic difference of using a burger bun-style shape over the folded over semi-circle, the Bao fillings were excellent and inventive, and we were particularly impressed with the cleverness of the "Mac & Cheese" dish. Although the current AUD to HKD exchange rate made Little Bao a bit pricey, I would thoroughly recommended adding Little Bao to a Hong Kong dining itinerary - had the exchange rate been better, we would had dined here twice in the week. Highly recommended. 

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