After many failed attempts, J and I finally had an opportunity to eat at Bao Bei. Spurred on by other food blogs, we were going in knowing that the reviews were mixed but promising, so for months now, every time we've been faced with a mealtime decision, we've thrown up Bao Bei as an option.
The decor was hip and asian inspired. The small tables ambitiously seating three.
We ordered Shao Bing, had the new house noodle dish that the server said was inspired by "Dan Dan noodles", spicy squid, steamed rice, and water spinach.... Sorry for the terrible pictures but the room was lit only by a tiny tea light on each table.
Shao Bing - Described as "crunchy sesame flatbread with braised pork butt, Asian pear, pickled onion and mustard greens – $10". This was huge... and delicious... We received this item first, and I mused to J that I was afraid to eat it for fear that I'd like it too much and the rest of the meal would go downhill.. Little did I know how true this would be. The pork was delicious and not too salty as I would have expected. The crust delicate and light.. not greasy. The only thing I'd come back for... Amazingness and memorable.
Water spinach - Described as "Water Spinach – garlic, preserved soy beans, chicken stock". Having prepared this dish myself, I understand its challenges. The key to preparing this vegetable successfully is to only use the fresh young shoots. When the shoots get old, they get hard and bitter. This was the case with this dish, they didn't cull the old bitter bits. In an effort to tenderize the hard old shoots, they over cooked the young portions, which turned to mush as you tried to lift them from the plate. The sauce was salty and not much more. I was disappointed to not taste the preserved soybean flavor.. but I guess if you didn't know any better you'd just think it was "strange and interesting". Kinda like those who eat taco bell once and believe they are mexican food connoisseurs. ;)
Spicy Squid with Bok Choy - Described as "Squid Stir fried with crispy pork belly, chili, and baby bok choi – $12". The squid was cooked perfectly.. not rubbery at all, and the spice had just enough heat, however, there just wasn't enough of it. This picture is the plate as it arrived. Surprise! It has not been picked over. You'd expect alot more from any other asian restaurant in terms of value for a $12 squid dish. I get it.. Bao Bei is all about small plates.. but then, don't bump the price if you aren't going to provide good value, imirite?
The House Noodles... Can't remember what was in it.. but it's going onto the Menu soon. After being urged by our server to try it, we did, and we were disappointed. It arrived beautifully presented. The noodles had a nice texture but the broth had a strange grainy texture. The flavors clashed so much it was unpleasant as eating crunchy peanut butter and steak soup... a angry melange of savoury flavors refusing to blend like oil and water. Anyways, if you see an incarnation on the menu that has pork cheeks and long noodles. Steer clear.
Being True Bananas we had to have white rice with the meal, but the rice came, hard and barely cooked. The server apologized, letting us know their rice cooker was on the fritz, but if you can't get WHITE RICE right in a chinese restaurant, you should stake yourself with bamboo imho.
We didn't drink, as BC has recently passed Bylaws for zero tolerance for drinking and driving, and that includes a glass of wine with your meal... but I've heard the drinks are the saving grace of Bao Bei.
At the end of the meal, I finally looked around me and noticed that every single person in the restaurant was a white middle-aged woman, except J and I. It was uncomfortable as hell... It was then that it hit me that all those reviews were right... the food didn't appeal to us, because it was poorly executed... and maybe wasn't intended for asians.
One look around at Bao Bei provides a clue. The place is hopping…and it is a predominantly non-Asian crowd. It sounds so incorrect even as I write this….but there it is: the food appeals to non-Asians. - Foodosophy
The killing blow had to be that the entire time, we were haunted by fruit flies... not just one or two... like eight..I had a hard time keeping my appetite while bugs buzzed around my face or dive bombed my food. I had mentioned it to the server, who then laughed it off. Um... alright.
Having grown up tasting that food as it should be cooked, I had higher expectations of Bao Bei. I figured my mother's peasant version of these dishes could have been reincarnated with clever spicing, nouveaux ingredients & techniques, and sustainable, farm raised local proteins... This unfortunately was not the case.
Go for drinks, if you are willing to stagger three blocks from the Lower East Side to the Skytrain, just don't forget to grab a Shao Bing for your efforts and whatever you do, don't expect a modern take on classic asian comfort food.