As we made our way to the family table at the back of Bao Bei, the crisp cool April evening that greeted us outside was juxtaposed by a significant lack of airflow inside the restaurant, yielding an internal temperature high enough to produce beads of sweat against our foreheads and fears of asphyxiation. This unyielding heat compounded by the spicy kick in my mouth from a platter of shao bing – a type of Chinese flatbread with sesame seeds on top – stuffed with cumin lamb sirloin, pickled red onion, green pepper, cilantro and salted chilies, forced me to leave the restaurant shortly thereafter. The rest of our party of eight could not stand the heat either and left for a break sometime during the tasting. But after the waft of fresh air, we all promptly returned. We could not help but return, because this place is good enough to come back to, over and over and over again.
Bao Bei displays a slight departure from one’s conventional perception of a Chinese restaurant where a modern twist to the norm is given through stylized platters, hospitable staff and an antiquated but charming design. In spite of modernizations however, owner Tannis Ling stays true to the ingredients and preparations of Shanghainese and Taiwanese cuisine. The acoustics are quite comparable too as it gets difficult to hear a person in your party farther than an arm’s length away. It’s vibrant and it’s loud, and you don’t need to go into the restaurant to know that. The lineup through the door and the difficulty of getting through the hoards of people at the entry every single time I go there is enough evidence of that.
Which leads me to believe that perhaps it was the mass of people clogging up the entrance that resulted in the significant lack of cool air at the back of the restaurant. But contrarily, aside from the stuffed shoa bing mentioned earlier, the heat element from the tasting was extremely understated. For example, a Bao Bei staple and the leading dish of the evening, marinated eggplant, had only a very subtle hint of chili heat. Its marination in soy and ginger cooled my palate enough to douse any residing heat. And the chili peppers were just enough to add another level of flavour to tingle my tongue. The Sichuan cucumber dish that followed after was just as comparable, where the bits of chili were cooled down by the marinated vegetables on the platter.
As with many Shanghainese and Taiwanese dishes, pork is a common component. As a staple in many oriental cuisines, I do not find it a mere coincidence that our entire table of eight enjoyed the platters of pork the most. The deep red dish that greeted our table early in the tasting was composed of crispy pork belly, sunchokes, Asian cucumber, pickled red onion and star anise tomato sauce. Almost everyone on our table professed this to be their favourite of the evening, but I somehow received a very lean part of the pork belly and did not enjoy the protein as much as the others. Nevertheless, the flavours packed a lot of punch and did well to compliment the hulking pieces of belly.
Another pork dish served towards the end, the jowls, were accompanied by pixian chili bean, plum glaze, mint, peanut, fried shallots, nuoc cham dressing and fruits such as pomelo and grapefruit. The perfect execution of the jowls really brought out its rich and gelatinous consistency, which was nicely contrasted by the citrus of the fruits.
However, not every dish during this visit tantalized my palate. I did not care much for the shao bing mentioned earlier as I have an aversion for extremely spicy food and I could not take the heat. Additionally, I found the flavours to be a little bland. But the major disappointment came early through the steamed truffled pork dumplings. Dubbed by our server as his favourite dish on the menu right before placing it on our table, our expectations were set high. With the truffle seeming to be the ingredient that differentiated it from the norm, its flavour really did not linger. The goods were gone as quickly as a whiff of fresh air made it to the family table, and aside from the fleeting truffle flavour, there was no overriding factor that differentiated it from simply just another pork dumpling. Decent in its own right and having had it previously expectations are what caused the disappointment.
In spite of it all, aside from philanthropic initiatives, Bao Bei is the only reason I venture to Chinatown, not as a misdirection but as a destination. And though the visit which I write about in this blog post was not the best experience I have had at Bao Bei, execution wise, ending our tasting with a trio of housemade scoops of creamy vietnamese coffee, jasmine tea and honey tangerine flavoured ice cream, literally and figuratively, brought the coolness factor back to our table and time here, reminding me why I enjoy coming back here over and over again.
To view pictures of our meal in its entirety, click through the photo set below. If you are using a mobile device, please click here for compatibility.
Thanks for reading,
C and S