25 Newport Court, Chinatown, London, WC2H 7JS
Baozi Inn is the latest offering from Fuschia Dunlop, the extraordinary chef who trained at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine in Chengdu and also consultant to the extremely popular Bar Shu which serves authentic Sichuanese fare. Unlike most people, I am not a big fan of the place, finding the dishes a little too spicy for my wimp of a palate. Her books are amazing though and I love the fact that she has brought and encouraged authenticity to a Chinatown that was rapidly becoming just another tourist trap.
Situated on the corner of Little Newport street, Baozi Inn is slightly off the beaten track of the brasher restaurants on Gerrard Street, and fits comfortably into the surrounding shops and restaurants. The dishes are photographed and displayed on the window in a traditional manner and the interior is cosy and enticing. I went just after the lunchtime rush so the place was fairly empty and the staff were incredibly friendly. The menu was a delight, it had “this is a real find” written all over it.
For some years now I’ve been coming to Chinatown in the day, perhaps after shopping or more often before going to watch a film at the Curzon cinema around the corner. Over these years I have progressively managed to annoy most of the restaurants in the area by going in alone and asking for just a soup and maybe another starter. And nothing else. This has caused me no end of embarrassment, eliciting a range of responses which trough from sighs, pity and dirty looks, peaking at outright disgust. But at last there is a place that caters for people like me, people who sometimes might be hungover and perhaps just want small amounts of nourishing Oriental food.
This menu was my idea of heaven, offering tapas style small dishes, an impressive salad and soup section and also slightly more substantial noodle dishes with sauces. There was even an intriguing “special drinks” section which looked like something straight out of a Club Tropicana video (in a good way). Baozi are steamed Chinese buns filled with various fillings from char sui pork to red bean paste, they were offered here with pork, egg or radish for £1.20 each. I wondered what the popular but very cheap-looking stall that has been opposite for time-immemorial made of Baozi?
I opted for the radish baozi, only to find that it had sold out. Instead I went for the hot and sour soup and a lotus and mushroom salad. The waitress was really helpful and asked me if I wanted to try their home-made soy milk drink and also explained the fact that the soup contained their own home-made tofu. My food arrived and I have to say I almost wept it was so good.
The lotus salad was one of the most perfect things I have ever eaten. Crisp layers of fresh lotus were thinly sliced and interspersed with an unlikely sounding but ridiculously tasty combination of goji berries, omlette, fish sausage and dark jelly-like fungus. The whole thing was dressed with the most addictive ginger and rice vinegar dressing and every mouthful was a brand new lesson in the joys of umami. I managed to tear myself away from this to try the soup which was unlike any hot and sour soup I have ever had.
This being Sichuanese food, I expected to have my head blown off but if anything it was erring slightly on the salty side, with the perfect low-key hum of chilli. The dark savoury broth was garnished with a bombay-mix type topping of peanuts and what looked like sev-sticks which crunched pleasingly against the huge cloud-like layer of soft creamy tofu ; a genius addition of pickled vegetables rendered the whole thing exquisite. The tofu had the texture of fresh curds and was the perfect foil to the spicy sour soup. It was absolutely gorgeous and made me want to order the entire menu.
My soya drink was also very good, slightly sweet with a hint of almond, I would recommend it to those who have only tried the mass-produced supermarket versions of soya milk. The decor was a refreshing change from the faux sterile posturing of so many other new places and the old Mao portraits and authentic Chinese ballads were cool in a relaxing way. My total bill came to £11 and it was here that I discovered the only drawback of Baozi – they don’t accept cards. With prices this cheap, even this is forgivable. I left feeling more satisfied than I had in a long time, and excited at the prospect of returning with an empty stomach, lots of friends and lots of hard cash.