How do I talk about Bao’s latest venture- which comes to Chinatown, giving its very own taste of 1930s Taipei, and is aptly named Xu.
Xu, if you’re wondering, is the name given to old school and rather dapper gentlemen in Taiwanese. I got that little snippet of info from the menu, and it fits the venue very well indeed.
Now, full disclosure; I am a massive Bao fangirl. I love Bao. I must have visited the various locations at least half a dozen times in the past year, and in my household ,trips to Bao are the currency for good behaviour.
Interestingly, I’ve always been far more keen on their ever expanding foray into tasting and sharing dishes than their actual baos- the very thing which they are named after and propelled them into the limelight back in 2015.
So when I heard that they were planning on opening Xu, their first bao-less restaurant, focusing entirely on classical and stylised Taiwanese cuisine I was immediately sold.
When we arrive, 8.15pm on a bustling Saturday night- their first Saturday service- it is full. Of course it’s full. And the mood is upbeat, which is a great sign.
We’re met by a man in a full-on tux, and for a moment I wonder if I should have made some effort with my appearance- but then I spot diners dressed in shorts and sneakers and all sorts of casual, and the majority of staff are in their trademark white jacket/aprons too.
And there are a lot of staff; just on the ground level I see eight or nine milling around, smiling and serving and running the show with surprising smoothness for somewhere that’s only been open a handful of days.
They are lovely, and it is like being a guest in someone’s really snazzy home. The room is decked out in gleaming wooden panelling, tiling and lined with glossy plants. It’s easy to forget the world outside when stepping into a scene steeped in history.
To drink, my partner and I choose the Longan & Mandarin coldbrew tea (£8 for 750ml bottle to share) and tuxedo man gives us a quick run-through the menu. The tea, I would like to say right now, is my new favourite drink ever. It’s light and fruity and sweet. I’m so fed up of high end places (you know who you are) who seem to associate sweetness with cheapness; they want no affiliation with anything of the sort so they instead veer towards the bitter end of the spectrum with every drink they make. I have a sweet tooth and this tea is delicious. If you have a sweet tooth you should order it, and even if you don’t, you should still give it a try.
To start, we choose a selection of small dishes.
Soy braised chicken feet with pickled cucumber (£2.75); fatty, slightly spicy and tasty. If you are going to try chicken feet you might as well try them here. Once you get past the fact that they are feet, and have nails and…such, they’re actually very nice.
The Lamb sweetbreads with fermented greens (£5.75) were my partner’s favourite starter. Smoky, breaded meat with a sweet and umami-filled sauce, these were a delight.
The Xian Bing (£5.50) were two fat golden pancakes filled with pan fried pork & chilli oil. Hearty and delicious they had a little heat- enough to make my lips tingle, but not so much as to reduce me to tears.
The Taro dumplings (£5.50) were definitely my favourite starter. I think. It’s hard to choose. They came in a vibrant green sauce and were filled with large meaty chunks of Taiwanese sausage. So good. So unexpectedly good. Packed with flavour.
As a last minute act of greed we also ordered the Beef Pancake (£10) just because, you know, YOLO. No regrets there. We didn’t know what to expect, so when came out a beautiful piece of bone marrow, alongside four wraps and three little mounds of pickled accompaniments it made a very pretty scene indeed. We loved the short rib and bone marrow; it was fatty, tender and moist.
For our main dish we chose the Shou Pa chicken (£18.50) and I am so happy we made that choice. I grew up in a household where nobody knew what to do with chicken. My whole life I thought chicken was supposed to be plain and chewy (I’m sorry mum I love you but leave the chicken) and dry. So dry. So whenever I taste a chicken dish that is so moist that it makes my mouth water just thinking about it, that dish deserves some recognition. This one oozed fat and deliciousness; it came with a spring onion and ginger stuffing of sorts, as well as a chicken skin crumb. The entire dish was a marvel, a classic for a reason.
We also chose the Lotus beef fat rice (£5.50) which was a lovely balance of spicy and savoury, and the Kale & Lap Yuk (£5.50). Generally speaking I hate kale. I wouldn’t if it was always served like this; zesty and fresh, this was light and so incredibly moreish. The lap yuk (little pieces of cured pork belly) gave it pangs of meaty richness.
Everything we ate was perfectly seasoned; perfectly. And throughout the meal the staff were so incredibly lovely I feel that really needs to be highlighted. There was potential here for Xu to be a very different kind of restaurant in its atmosphere; to be elitist and snobby and not entirely welcoming. Instead every effort has been made to make it a place for everyone to relax and enjoy the stunning dishes that are being created in the kitchen below.
It was a wonderful meal and honestly I can’t remember the last time I had so much to say about a dining experience. I can’t wait to go back.