Monday, November 18, 2013

The Little Bao That Could

The new joint to hype is Little Bao. If you eat at Little Bao, you are cool.

Okay I'm exaggerating, but these days, restaurateurs are the people to know. You know it all started with Yardbird. Before that, owning a restaurant was only one step up from owning a home-appliance store. Like, I know it's cool that you feed people, but you're still in a service business, right? And never has waitstaffing been so glamorous. Before Yardbird gave late-night eats a new and cooler meaning, nobody went to Tsui Wah and flirted shamelessly with the waiters, plying them with sake for a wink and a smile. I'm not judging, I'm just saying.

But now is the era of the It restaurant. If you can somehow distill that gastronomic je ne sais quoi into a restaurant, the zeitgeist set will come a-running. You can make them wait in line for hours just to eat and charge them for loads of drinks while they're patiently milling outside. I'm not judging, I'm just saying.

And I'm proud to present the next crown prince in the eating game. (Still, no one can topple the sovereign rule of Yardbird, right?) Little Bao as all the right elements.

1) It started as a stall at Island East Markets. Nothing creates desire like a limited-edition pop-up. A pop-up at a FARMER'S MARKET? Uh, that's not even fair; give the other restaurants a chance.
2) No reservations and no service charge. All the cool kids are doing it.

3) Hipster chef-owner (May Chow) and staff, with awesome haircuts you can't pull off. Seriously, how does May get her hair to do that twirly thing on top?
4) Twist-on-classics food concept. Namely, Chinese buns with multi-cultural, atypical fillings.

5) Has food item involving pickling. Because if you follow food trends, it's no longer about sous vide or weird molecular shit. And fuck foraging. It's all about pickling.

6) A Yardbird degree. May used to work at Yardbird. And Bo Innovation, which is not really cool to like now but was once considered groundbreaking.

I know I should move on to the "review", but honestly, I think someone else would do a much better job of giving you a play-by-play of every dish. I had my meal during the soft-opening period, which a) is never a fair time to judge a restaurant, b) a long time ago, so the nuances are a little bit fuzzy, and c) was serving a set menu at a fixed price, which isn't the format now. I will instead give you what I always want to read in a blog post: a list of what to order if you go.

Order the pickled mushroom salad. It really does a good job of showcasing what that technique is famed for. Get the clams, the flavouring is pretty intense and really vibrant. The short rib dumplings are an example of something that's a good idea in concept, but just not as mind-blowing as it should be. The Brussels sprouts are a good way to get your veggies on, if you like that sort of thing. And the chicken is better than the pork belly bao, mainly because I've had pork belly baos from Momofuku and those just cannot be replaced. But also, the ma-la Szechuan spice makes the chicken bao pretty darned good.

The vibe is buzzy, the music is old school, the logo is retro-adorable.

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