Thursday, 3 December 2015

Bao Wow (and a little bit of Mao)

Got a call to go to Soho, the dragon said go
Let everyone know...
Chinese bombs, millions jump
Chairman's junk, USA
Blur - Chinese Bombs

Something I attempt (and probably fail) is avoiding the 'somewhere that's been on my radar for ages' or 'I can't believe I haven't been here yet' cliches when writing about restaurants that have been around for a while. Only in this case, it's indisputably true and no other cliche will suffice quite so accurately.

The reason I can say this with some certainty when speaking about a restaurant that opened approaching a decade ago is because the Baozi Inn opening its doors in Chinatown coincided with the beginning of my own independent culinary adventures around town.

More specifically it heralded the age of me buying my own copy of Time Out's annual London Eating and Drinking Guide (now sadly defunct) - rather than raiding my friend's landlady's book shelf for her copy - and finally getting to visit some of these places for myself, instead of vicariously living through the printed page. 

The reason Baozi Inn stands out so clearly is that back in 2008 it, along with older sibling Barshu (whom Time Out had hailed as London's first major venture in Sichuan cuisine), was the talk of the town. It even won runner up in London's best Cheap Eats awards (Franco Manca was the winner that year), as the review from my original guide shows.

Slowly Baozi slipped down my ever-expanding ‘must do’ list - superseded by the fried chicken the ramen and hot dogs and lobster rolls, or the latest dish du jour – until, one day, their once revelatory fluffy buns had slowly slipped off the page and out of my mind all together.

Still, most things that stick around are there with good reason (the latest government, amongst others, excepted) and Baozi Inn can still be found on the same place on Newport Court. So when I wanted a quick Chinese lunch spot to fuel an afternoon of Chinese culture, Time Out once again came to the rescue, recommending  a slew of Soho classics (many that were listed in the same guide as Baozi, such as Jen CafĂ© and HK Diner), but, this time, the buns finally had it.

The eponymous Baozi, which originally included varieties such as pork and onion or egg and chinese chive, are now offered in one flavour, that of my childhood favourite Pot Noodle; chicken and mushroom.

As a lover of stodge, these were just the ticket, with the funkily-flavoured (in a good way) mushroom filling standing up nicely to the blandness of the bread. As delicious as it was, I needed something with a bit of spice to liven things up and resorted to dipping the bun in the chili oil in the bottom of my noodle dish.

The dandanmian, or dan dan noodles – named for the carrying pole noodle street hawkers would hang their wares on – arrived as a tangle of house made noodles topped with ground pork and bok choi leaves, sitting in a savoury puddle of aforementioned chilli sauce. 

Forget ‘fusion’ food, this is the perfect example of east meets west, resembling a kind of spaghetti bolognese on steroids. In fact, save for the sesame in the sauce and hint of tongue-numbing spice (a little too wan on the heat levels for someone who likes to suffer when eating their lunch), it was just like mama used to make.

So, was it worth the wait? Well, yes and no. Nothing can really live up to that level of anticipation, but the food was decent, the prices still commendably low and the service polite, if predictably brisk.

Of course, thanks to pioneers like Baozi Inn, things move on and perception changes; what was revelatory a few years ago has now been superseded by the next craze. But if the draw of simple Sichuan street food is no longer going to lure punters across town, as a central refuelling spot it comes highly recommended. And, for someone who loves compiling lists, the joy of finally being able to cross –and to have enjoyed the experience to boot – is priceless.

Baozi Inn Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Ai Wei Wei - Tree, 2009-10, 2015. Tree sections and steel
Apart from wanting to finally strike Bazoi Inn from the 'must do' list, I also hoped that it, along with the stroll through Chinatown and up Piccadilly, my appetite for all things East Asian would be whetted for the afternoon's feast for the eyes; Ai Weiwei's much lauded exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art.

Ai Weiwei - Hanging Man, 1985. Wire coathanger
Ai is a Chinese artist who is probably most famous here in the Big Smoke for the 100 million individually hand painted porcelain sunflower seeds, that covered the floor of the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall. When asked why he used sunflower seeds, he replied: 'There is a social element to the sunflower seeds, as it is a snack that people share among friends, in meetings and conversations. They are also related to the revolutionary ideology of Mao Zedong, where Chairman Mao is the sun, and his loyal followers the sunflowers surrounding him.' 

Whichever words you might use to describe Ai, follower isn't usually one of them - unless it's in an artistic sense, where Duchamp, one of my favourite artists, remains a firm influence. As a political dissident and world renowned artist, Ai  now has a firm influence himself.

Ai Weiwei - Straight, 2008–2012. Steel rebar
Ai Weiwei - He Xie, 2010. Painted porcelain crabs
I won't talk too much about the exhibition - much has been already been said and in a far more erudite way than this poor ex-student of art history could - but here are a few of my favourite works from a powerful and challenging collection. Special mention too for some great printed wallpaper, Ai, if your reading, my lounge could do with a makeover...

Ai Weiwei - Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995
Ai Weiwei - Coloured Vases, 2015. Twelve Han Dynasty and four Neolithic vases with industrial paint
Ai Wewei - S.A.C.R.E.D, 2011-2013. one of six dioramas
Ai Weiwei - The Golden Age, 2014. Wallpaper
Ai Weiwei - Bicycle Chandelier, 2015
While it may have taken a while to finally get to Bazoi Inn, I'm glad I made it to the Royal Academy before the 13th December, when the exhibition finishes. If you're reading this before then, and you haven't yet been, I'd recommended it highly. If not, then there's still a stalwart - with it's own kitsch version of Chinese culture and very good buns - just up the road.

No comments:

Post a Comment