Lots of people have recommended this place, and we finally got here with my gourmand brother and his diaphanously creative wife. It’s along a curving section of Keefer Street, down below (and a previously industrial tailend) of Chinatown, now home to alluring little bars and brasseries. Bao Bei doesn’t take reservations and opens at 5:30 PM.
By the time they unlatched the iron gate and let us in, there were maybe a dozen mixed mostly older people waiting for the I would say 50 seats in the long thin space. We kneed in around a little table and savoured the simple faux-archaic Chinese minimalist décor, put off only slightly but strangely by a faint rotten vegetable smell I associate with mid-20th-century ethnic grocery stores. This seemed to go a bit beyond reasonable in terms of authenticity…
We were – I want to say attacked – pretty much at once by an excessively fey young male waiter who rattled off a canned spiel introducing the small plates, recommending two items per diner, describing the service (things come out as they are ready), and asking what we wanted to drink. This guy if anything accelerated his delivery through the meal and ended up frankly driving our experience toward the exit, including an upsell he didn’t bother to disguise. In retrospect we could probably have made this whole thing work, but to slow down his drive to turn tables we’d have to have had the determination that would’ve stopped a speeding train. We were out the door in well under an hour, at a time most people are still at work.
Never mind, the food half-justifies the whiteknuckle ride. The menu is divided into “schnacks” (is this somebody faking a German accent trying to order plum brandy?), “petits cadeaux”, and petits plats chinois, plus vegetables and side plates the latter including steamed rice and sunny side up egg (which is my normal idea to kick just about anything I eat up a notch). We had steamed bean curd, Taiwanese pork sausage, and Szechuan fried chicken schnacks. The bean curd was like some soft gentle animal’s internal membranes and it disappeared fast with its tiny bit of mushroom. The pork sausage was predictably sweet but substantial and beautifully made. The tiny fried chicken bits were soft inside but hard on the outside and flavorless, reminding me of the same thing at Hawksworth’s Nightingale.
Then came quickly like the climax of the July fireworks: beef tartare, crispy pork belly, and two sets of dumplings, one steamed and one steamed-then-fried. It’s not clear looking at the menu what was in the dumplings (others at the table ordered those), but they were very tasty and moderately explosive in their varied flavours, perfectly prepared, and accompanied by slightly modified soy sauce.
One had to dissect the crispy pork belly into its layers, and be sure each piece was soaked in the lovely cilantro dressing and chop-sticked up with some of the several specific tiny vegetable bits. An Asian version of one we do at home (and almost as good). The beef tartare was the kicker for me, and almost wagyu-marbled ground tenderloin with plenty of salt and subtle flavourings, and a raw quail egg in a little valley on top. There were crispy fried shallots, and magnificently salted taro chips to scoop up the meat mixed in with the egg. I couldn’t get enough.
Which was one of the other minor problems with this experience: in keeping with current polite society’s preoccupation with risking getting committed for an eating disorder, the portions were like the menu says “petite”. Really only a bite or two for each one shared among four of us. And the prices at $16-$21 each would’ve been reasonable if, as was not the case, we’d been paying for what you’d normally call a main dish.
We drank various things. The modified manhattan was sour but mysteriously medicinal, the piña colada watery, and the straightforward Chinese beer perfectly okay. Approximately $50 per person counting a 20% tip. And as I say we were out the door so fast most of the food hadn’t got to the bottom of our esophaguses. So we were still a bit peckish.
I could see going back, but would strenuously resist the hurry and try a few more dishes including the nicely-named “kick ass fried rice”. Food 9.0, service 6.0, ambience 7.5, value 7.1, peace and quiet 4.3