I was having a particularly bad day yesterday and just felt groggy and completely not myself, so was in need of what I would call comfort food (to me, it’s anything Asian that tastes good). I called up a girlfriend and forced myself out of the house, instead of just staying and wallowing at home and cooking or lying around.
I’d been waiting to try out Bao Bei (what a friend told me means ‘Precious‘), a new restaurant that just opened in Chinatown on Keefer Street last Friday evening. The authentic Taiwanese/Shanghainese Chinese Brasserie was opened by Tannis Ling, a former bartender from Chambar, and the influences of the food are derived from her mother’s home cooking. The general manager is Paul Grunberg, who most recently worked at Market by Jean-Georges (at the Shangri-La Hotel), and the head chef is Joel Watanabe.
I headed over to pick up my friend that lives right in the area, and we then parked and walked a couple of blocks down Keefer. When we went in the doors, the place was filled with diners and patrons at the bar, and it actually took about ten minutes until anyone walked over to greet us. There were another two women next to us, who mentioned that it would be about 15 minutes, as that’s what they were just told shortly before we got there. For us, it would still be about 20-30 minutes, as all of the tables were filled and no one was quite finished eating yet (the restaurant is fairly small, with seating for about fifty people). Since neither of us were starving, and our minds were already set on the place, we decided to stay there and take a look at the drink menu while we waited. Plus, twenty minutes couldn’t be that bad, right?
Over to the right, there was a little lounge waiting area, and as it emptied out, we managed to shuffle in, along with the other two people that were just ahead of us. We ordered a couple of drinks and sat around and chatted. While my girlfriend ordered a glass of white, I decided that “The Best F@#*&$# Pina Colada You’ve Ever Had” was probably worth a shot.
After a few minutes, our drinks arrived, and I was told that it was actually a Mango Colada, and not a regular Pina Colada, as the menu said. I was a bit thrown at first but then thought, fine with me! I love mango and it seemed like it would go better with the food anyway. I’d have to say that it was pretty tasty. Not sure if it’s the ‘best f#$(%’ one I’ve had, but still really good.
After awhile, we were starting to get antsy – people kept walking in the doors and leaving, since they didn’t want to have to wait, and others walked in and managed to sit down at the bar right away (it appeared that a lot of friends of the staff were showing up). I was getting a bit annoyed at this point, as I kept seeing people getting seated before us, and we had to keep asking for our table, and how much longer it would be. After 1.5 hours (yes, you read that right), we were seated at the….bar. Once there, they gave us our food menus and said we should probably start ordering there, and we could move to a table once it was ready, if we still wanted it. And yes, we made it very clear that we still wanted it.
So we looked through the menu options, and I noticed that the prices seemed quite reasonable. We started picking and choosing what to eat and then put in our order. At this point, our first two dishes arrived. First of all, we got the Crispy Fishies. These were incredibly good, and probably the best that I’d eaten before. Mind you, I’ve bought them in little plastic packages from Asian grocery stores, and just eaten them like that – but still. They were sweet and salty, and mixed in with some peanuts. Once I had a few, I realized that I was indeed starving, and couldn’t wait for the rest of our meal to show up (and maybe even our table – especially since I saw three empty ones last time I went to the bathroom).
Next up was the Shao Bing. This was basically a crisp sesame flatbread, that had Asian pear, pickled onion and mustard greens, and braised pork butt inside. I really enjoyed this – it had a great texture and the flavour of the pork with the rest of the fillings complemented each other really well. This was gone in an instant. And at that point, a table also finally became available to us.
So, we moved over into the dining area, and got settled in with all of our stuff that we had already started to collect at that point. After getting refills of water and drinks, and waiting a few more minutes, we finally felt accepted into the rest of the crowd in main seating area. (Note, this was almost a full two hours later – it’s lucky at this point I was a) super determined, b) not already chewing off my arm, and c) at my ultimate laid back mode and happy to be out of the house.)
At this point, our steamed rice arrived with the order of Squid. The squid was stir fried with baby bok choy, pork belly, chilies, and garnished with cilantro. This was great, since the squid was just cooked enough that it wasn’t tough, and the small chopped up pieces of pork added a lot of punch to the dish.
The Ellie’s Belly, or pork belly, then came to the table. When ordering (at the bar), our server at the time told us it was one of his favourites, so we were really looking forward to it. This was excellent. I love fatty meats, and anyway that has eaten a few meals with me, knows how extreme this can get. Or disturbing. Regardless, I was very happy when I tasted the tender and rich Ellie. The sauce was amazing when eaten over rice, and there was also some cabbage underneath that went well with the dish.
At this point, both of us were beginning to feel almost completely sated. It was time to order a little bit of Oolong tea to help settle the stomach in preparation for the final items yet to come. The other choices they had available included Earl Grey and Peppermint, but I needed something Asian to go with the food and cut through a bit of the rich pork belly.
Finally, we had our side of Chinese Sausage arrive and I was a little thrown by its looks. I’m used to seeing something that looks a little more dense and small and was sure that this variation would be interesting. When it came to the table, I wasn’t actually sure what it was, and had to remind myself what we had ordered. It seemed to have been ground up and cooked – so way less dense than I’ve had in the past. I gave it a try, but I don’t think I’ll get these again. I couldn’t get past the way they were ground up and it just wasn’t all that appealing to me (kind of reminded me of dog food, really. At least I gave it a shot!
Last but not least, our veggies arrived to counterbalance all the meat and protein we had eaten. This was in the form of stir-fried King pea shoots in garlic, and what tasted like oyster sauce. I absolutely love pea shoots cooked in this way, but I think there was a slight overdose in the sauce, as it was extremely salty and we had to order another bowl of rice to get through some of it. Alas, we were done, and could not even finish nearly half of the plate.
Unfortunately, through all of that, and not being that hungry to begin with for once, we couldn’t even make it for dessert. I was curious about their fried banana and mango pudding options (they also had assorted ice creams on offer), but I just couldn’t make it happen this time around. So, we grabbed the bill and noticed the fun little card that came with it – useful phrases in Chinese, my favourite of which was “Where is the dance party.”
So overall, I loved the concept and the atmosphere, and also the food. I haven’t found a great Taiwanese place in the area before (please share in the comments if you know of others), so this was a great new addition to the neighbourhood. However, if I’m told next time it’ll be 20-30 minutes, and then shuffled around after various friends come through ahead of me for almost two hours, making it feel like I am completely unwanted, I won’t make it back for a third. I know that Bao Bei just opened over the past week, and I’m sure there are many loved ones that are really excited to share in the new experience, so I am still willing to give it another shot (shocking to some, I know). However, the service needs some serious work over the short term, if the restaurant is expecting new patrons to become regulars (note, our service once at our table was better).