Bao Bao is pure "Wow Wow!"
Well, I finally made it to Cara Stadler's new Portland restaurant, Bao Bao. About all I could say immediately afterwards was "wow, wow!"
Since it's opening about a month ago, the place has been packed every time I've walked by, but tonight, getting out of work early, I noticed a couple of spaces open at the bar and took a break from my own cooking.
It's impossible to describe the transformation of the former West End Deli, which I've visited more times than I can count over the past 13-15 years. Other than the entrance the space is entirely unrecognizable and now one of the coolest spaces in Portland. The enormous, wall filling dragon sculpture is only one of many dramatic touches in the dining area, with a stunning carved ceiling, large, starkly elegant chandeliers outsized artwork and a knockout of a bar, lowered like an orchestra pit on the bartenders' side all had me turning my head in every direction like a first time tourist (which, technically, I was).
The menu is small - one knows this going in, four apps, a half dozen or so dumplings, greens in oyster sauce and beef noodle soup. The cocktail menu is slightly exotic (with nice twists on old classics), with a decent beer and wine selection. At the bartender's recommendation I ordered the Beet Yozu Martini. Juices of beets, yuzu and lemon, mixed with Thai basil and Tanqueray in cool low glass with a sour sugar rim . . . far from my typical drink but providing the first of several "wows" of the evening.
To start I choose the spicy pig ear appetizer, a large portion of sliced ears, tossed with Napa cabbage marinated in spicy, sour Shanxi-province vinegar that initially tasted pickle-ly, with a mild heat that intensified with each ensuing bite. I wasn't expecting the dish to be served cold, and expect its "odd food" status will make this one of the less popular menu items.
Next up, my single order of dumplings (which come boiled, steamed or pan fried, I chose the last). Six beauties stuffed with a sausage ball of lamb, black bean, peanuts, and chilis, served with a homemade tomato relish/ketchup. I will likely order these every time I return. I was sorry I didn't order the Hake dumplings which looked amazing . . . but I need something to look forward to next time.
The staff was young, attractive with a slight hipster-edge that dominates the food scene right now, my bartender warm, friendly and helpful even while working up a storm.
By the time I left, around six, the place was already packed, with hopeful diners waiting outside to be sided. To have this gem only a couple of blocks from home could be dangerous.
No pics of the interior yet, but google them to see some stunners.