There seems to be a welcome trend of small Newcastle restaurants popping up with small menus of specialities that are done very well.
Bigger, for me, rarely means better when it comes to restaurants and cafes; in a sense, I’d rather they told me what to eat instead of me selecting the safest option from a menu which tries to cater for as many tastes as possible. So, smaller specialist restaurants like Bao Bar are up my street.
And, on freezing, rainsoaked midweek night, I am relieved that Bao Bar is quite literally up my street, so no Metro or bus into town for me, just a short stroll along Chillingham Road for a Far East fix.
Baos are traditional Chinese steamed buns, round and soft, often filled with pork. When we visited, the chalkboard menu featured five varieties of bao, and a tempting selection of small plates: tofu cakes; steamed chicken dumplings in a Tom Yum broth; and a char sui pastry turnover with truffle sauce.
The baos ranged from £3 to £5, while the small plates were priced from £5 to £8.50. I’d say two of each, per diner, is about right.
The venue is cosy, with bar-style stool seating offering the option to sit right at the counter and watch your food made in front of you. There is an extensive drinks selection, including kombucha and Asian whiskies, as well as cold beer, available in draught or bottles.
What’s it like inside?:
The snugness and open kitchen give Bao Bar a bustling feel, as did the fairly loud up-tempo electronic music being played. Although that is not necessarily something I find relaxing while eating, it added to the ambience in its way. Playing no music at all could possibly create a more silent atmosphere all-round, as customers would be able to hear every word from those sat elsewhere in the bar.
The tunes were quiet enough to hold a conversation with your own party. Tall stool seating may also not be to everybody’s taste, but they are limited on space, and the team has done well utilise the narrow unit in the way it has. Also, Bao Bar is after all, a bar, serving pan-Asian food, not a restaurant you’d sit down in for hours to have a formal meal.
To order, we were given tapas-style cards, which customers mark out their choices on and hand over to the counter.
My companion and I chose a cod fish bao, served with Sichuan salt and pepper and yuzu kosho; a tempura prawn bao with Cantonese sauce and pickle, a char sui pastry with truffle sauce and the steam dumplings in Tom Yum. To drink, we ordered two bottles of ‘Asian Beer’. We were served two very cold Leos, a lager from Thailand which I don’t think I’ve seen before.
The service is quick, within a few minutes the two delightful looking baos arrived, which were bigger than I’d anticipated. We cut them in half so each of us could try both.
The buns themselves were light and fluffy, instead of feeling (as bread can) like a dense stodge designed to hold the filling, while the cod was a perfect partner for the yuzu kosho, which did not overpower. If you like fish tacos, or even a fish cake, you’d be into it. I was.
However much I enjoyed the cod, the tempura prawn bao was the true king. Prawn and tempura go together like love and marriage, while the pickle gave it a welcome lift too. The prawn itself kept a bit of crunch, but was juicy once bitten into. Get one each, as there could have been a fight over who got to finish the bao.
I have to say, the crisp, cold Thai lager was a brilliant accompaniment, allowing me to cleanse my pallet between eating each bao and waiting for the small plates, which came after.
The small plates proved there is more to Bao Bar than just baos, with four contemporary East Asian influenced selections to choose from.
The soft chicken dumplings were gently bathing in the Tom Yum, with crispy onions on top, which added the crunchy texture you’d get with fried dumplings. Spooned together in one go, each mouthful was a treat. You could pick out the fragrances and spices, particularly the refreshing lime and lemongrass. Each flavour was there for a reason, rather than just being clumped together and indistinguishable. There is a little spicy kick, but nothing to worry about.
Once the dumplings were consumed, we enthusiastically finished the broth in spoonfuls, though I could have downed it. The char sui turnover was not something I’d have expected to find in Bao Bar, but I saw a picture of it on their Facebook page and knew I’d immediately have to try one.
The pastry was a perfect parcel for the char sui, as I bit into, the delicate, sweet barbecue flavour tip toed into my mouth. My dining partner described the turnover, or pasty, as ‘the ultimate comfort food’, adding: “I could definitely go home after a bad day and cry into a char sui pasty”. Just what you need to restore your senses on a miserable winter night.
The bill for two baos, two small plates and two beers was £28.
Bao Bar is a brilliant addition to Heaton’s neighbourhood dining options, and one that is worth making the trip to Chillingham Road to if you live in another part of town. The menu is small, but focused on doing what they do very well, while also managing to combine a tempting selection of baos with their contemporary and innovative small plates, allowing for variety and a fun tapas-style service.
The music – when we visited – may not be to everybody’s taste, but it was not overbearing and did add to a casual atmosphere. It was cash only too, which can be annoying, although there are plenty of free-to-use ATMs within a minute’s walk.
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