Soho ain’t what it used to be. For one wonderful, ridiculous, it’d-never-happen now waking dream of a year, I lived at the heart of the heart of London. It was a time when nobody had yet heard of Wholefoods or third-wave coffee. Gentrification – blandalism – hadn’t yet claimed Broadwick Street, Berwick Street Market, “Sex Alley”; there were still handlettered signs (“MODEL UPSTAIRS”) posted on doors opened onto dingy stairwells leading to, at a guess, the 1950s; it wasn’t uncommon for there to be great clatters of footsteps overhead as we ate dinner as the police pursued some miscreant taking flight across the rooftops connecting Poland Street to the then decrepit Marshall Street Baths.
Once in a while my erstwhile housemate and I make plans to revisit some of our old Soho haunts, only to find that what used to be gritty but fun is now blandly prefab-futuristic. Lacklustre chains inhabit gleaming newbuilds, and the last grimy, shadowy nooks and crevices of the place have been bleached to nothing by the always-oncoming-never-arriving headlights of Crossrail.
Even Chinatown is changing. What we used to call “the big supermarket” has shrunk to a couple of aisles, while “the little one” has expanded – size aside, their ambience and stock was always so similar that it could simply be that a delivery trick mistakenly dropped off at the wrong address a couple of times and the supermarkets adapted accordingly. Asian bakeries, breweries and hairdressers have proliferated at street level. It’s all so weirdly new.
You feel for the can’t-decide crowd who check the menu outside, assess the cheery downstairs room through the windows, and then are led upstairs
Yet here, down the dog-leg passageway of Little Newport Street, we find BaoziInn 2 Chinatown, a sixth location for this mini chain with branches at Borough Market and near Victoria Station, along with several in Soho. New it may be, but it feels venerable, and not necessarily in a good way. Upstairs, where we sit, canteen-like lighting beams down on colourful, wrapping-paper art hung on walls that have been slathered in something the colour and texture of refried beans, or some less pleasant gunk. You fear to brush against it, in case it’s still oozing. The street-level dining space is tiny but lively; upstairs is, cuisine aside, Siberia. You feel for the can’t-decide crowd who check the menu outside, assess the cheery downstairs room through the windows, and then are led upstairs. Service, on the other hand, could not be friendlier or more helpful (although a side dish of smashed cucumber never materialises), or less flustered by my companion’s litany of allergies.
Where the other branches offer regional Chinese street food, here the focus is on that found specifically in Taiwan. Sweet, highly seasoned, hot-pink Taiwanese sausage makes several appearances – as pound coin-sized rounds on a charcuterie board, with lightly pickled cucumber ginger (a dangerously moreish combination), or sliced into a rice bowl with “popcorn” chicken, julienned vegetables and braised egg to mix together into nutty, grainy, salty, yolk-slick heartiness. Baozi, vari-coloured dumplings, are the restaurant’s signature dish – I ordered a bowl of green, white and red in a pool of chilli oil but was uncertain whether the red ones contained pork and the white ones chicken or vice versa, and moreover where the chilli had gone; mouthful-sized, with thick skins, these are hearty but, without the pungency of full-heat spice, a little undistinguished. Oddly, too, Hot and Numbing Beef Noodles is only three-quarters accurate as a description: I had hoped for something like the palate-tingling, lip-prickling effects of a dose of Szechuan pepper, and while the stock in which these egg noodles and tender nuggets of beef wobbled was dark and piping hot, it wasn’t at all spicy. I ended up eating the lone slice of raw red chilli from a small accompanying bowl of pickles for seasoning just to engender that tiny flare of mouthburn. I’m keen to go to Tawian anyway; now I’m keener to know whether this low level of spicing is typical for the local cuisine, or whether it’s been dialled down for the western, or Westminster, palette.
That this is a newcomer seemed so implausible that I had to double check, and yes: Baiwei had a five-year run on this site (according to Google, our lords and masters of misinformation, it still is open), and yes, the décor was different then. Pleasing though it is that even in novelty-obsessed Soho a new opening can give you the feeling it must have been there forever, it’s a shame that this particular iteration of BaoziInn has sped ahead to the point where it already feels a little jaded and in need of a rethink. C
BaoziInn Chinatown 2, 8 little Newport Street, London WC2H 7JJ