Bao Down has been filled to the point of overflowing every night since it opened in late June. We snagged a booking to try this contemporary take on the cuisines of China, Korea and Japan from Graham Oldfield, former head chef at Chefs Warehouse and Canteen, and his wife, Phillipa, a former caterer.
Best for: Chatty, comfortable dinner with friends who like to share
Cost: R80 on average for a small plate
Parking: Street parking is available on Vredehoek Avenue or Buitenkant Street
Star rating: food 4; service 5; ambience 5
The menu is concise, offering six mains, two sides and a dessert of the day. ‘Mains’ is a bit of a strong word – as with Liam Tomlin’s small plates, two people could probably finish all six dishes without popping a button. We’re slightly better behaved, skipping out on the sashimi with ponzu dressing, pickled jalapeño and radish, as well as the only vegan dish on the menu, celeriac cake with edamame beans, Brussels sprouts and spicy dressing.
Instead we start with the prawn toast, which is perfectly accompanied by dipping sauces, one of which is a lemon mayo. As true Brad Leone-devotees, we had to order the kimchi. It offers a salty bite that cuts through the sweeter notes of the pork bao with barbecue sauce and cucumber. The spicy chicken wings are so moreish, you’ll be licking clean your fingers and the plate.
The hot and sour soup with beef brisket and steamed rice is a real treat. They’re not joking about the sour part, but the rice balances it out nicely and the still-crunchy sprouts add another layer of texture.
For dessert there’s Crack Pie – an ode to Christina Tosi’s legendary dessert created for Momofuku and Milk Bar. The condensed milk sweetness plus a dollop of cream is obviously good (how can it not be, with all that sugar?), but it’s not the most unforgettable part of the experience.
On Sundays they also do a set menu.
For now, Bao Down doesn’t have a liquor licence, so you can bring your own. In the meantime, sip on bottled water; kombucha in flavours of lemongrass, wild dagga and ginger; sour cherry, jasmine and green teas; or the usual soft drinks.
With the kitchen blending into the front of house, you could find Graham himself popping out from behind his stainless steel workbench to deliver crockery. This kind of attentiveness and rhythm makes for a near perfectly paced meal despite the restaurant being jam-packed. A friendly word from staff to explain how some of the dishes go together would be helpful, and as someone who has never actually mastered the art of eating with chopsticks, it can be a bit intimidating. But don’t stress, no-one bats an eye if you just go ahead and grab things with your hands.
The tiny space has a warm glow, welcoming you with that particular shade of prawny pink that’s oh-so-cool right now, accented by soft sea tones. Vintage exotic bird prints adorn the walls alongside origami-inspired lights and antique mirrors. The restaurant seats only 18 at the tables that are far too beautiful for tablecloths, with 10 more seats at the bar. It’s a well-curated space, clearly demonstrating the couple’s eye for detail. Rowdy crowds are a possibility but it’s somehow never too loud to chat easily.
As we’re paying our bill (which comes handwritten and presented in a gorgeously kitsch woven swan with, of course, White Rabbit toffees), a woman at the table next to us proclaims Bao Down to be her new favourite place: “I’m going to come here all the time!” I have a feeling we’ll bump into each other every time. The Oldfields set out to create a neighbourhood eatery and this they’ve surely done, perhaps even too well. It’s a leaked secret I wish I could’ve kept all to myself.
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