Cocktails might seem like an afterthought at Portland’s pocket-sized dumpling house, Bao Bao, but take note: the drinks are good. Cara Stadler, a rising star chef receiving national accolades, has no doubt made new Sinophiles out of Portlanders since opening last fall. And at the very least, she’s helped introduce Maine to lip-smacking dumplings.
What was once the West End Deli on Spring Street underwent a major renovation to create Bao Bao, a chic and simple Chinese eatery with a 12-seat bar that is situated below the dining room – when seated at the bar, you’ll be looking slightly down and be about eye level with your bartender.
The dining room area is painted mostly white – an impressive dragon sculpture looms over one wall – while the bar is dark and cavernous, painted black and backlit with dim orange lights. One important note about the bar seating is that it’s fair game for diners. Reservations are only taken for groups of eight or more, so expect to see almost everyone eating at the bar – at a place like Bao Bao, it would be hard not to order food, but the drinks do hold their own.
The 11 specialty cocktails include a scorpion bowl ($21), a Mai Tai ($11) and even a pina colada ($12) served in a retro pineapple mug. Each cocktail, no matter how classic (or cliched) is given a unique Bao Bao touch, but one of the real standouts is the Beet & Yuzu martini ($11), made with beet juice, yuzu, lemon, Thai basil and Tanqueray and finished with a sour sugar rim. Yuzu is a sour citrus fruit of Asian origin that’s often used for perfumes because of its floral fragrance. The Beet & Yuzu drink is a luscious purple color and is served straight up in a small martini glass – but beware, this drink is stronger than its size implies.
Another outstanding cocktail is the Baolevardier, which is Bao Bao’s take on the ever-classic Manhattan/Negroni variation, with a more robust flavor and tad more sweetness ($10).
Several white, red and sparkling wines are on the menu, as well as five choices of sake. On a recent night, Bao Bao hosted an Oxbow tap takeover, serving Oxbow brews on all six taps. However, the Maine Beer Co.’s Zoe was listed as on tap, as was Hitachino’s Yuzu Saison (both for $7). Nine bottled beers are available from $3 to $9.
Bao Bao’s bar might be best visited on a weeknight (although they are closed Mondays) because Friday and Saturday nights are extremely busy.
The good news is that tables seem to turn quickly, thanks to the efficient service and speedy kitchen that churns out plates of hot dumplings, beautiful slaw salads and large bowls of soup in no time.
133 Spring St., Portland | 207-772-8400 | facebook.com/BaoBaoDumplings
HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday; 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. Wednesday to Saturday; closed Monday
AMENITIES: Comfortable bar seats with backs, spotless bathrooms, wait list system that calls your cell phone when seats are available, a phone that rings and gets answered, relatively quick turnaround time with tables.
BOTTOM LINE: Bao Bao dumpling house in Portland is the second restaurant of acclaimed chef Cara Stadler, who also owns Tao Yuan in Brunswick. The tiny restaurant on Spring Street can pack a solid crowd, but they do not take reservations except for groups of eight or more. The bar seating is fair game, so on weekends there will likely be a wait even if you’re getting a drink. This is the kind of place that would be hard to resist ordering at least one or two things off the menu – an order of six dumplings, a plate of smashed cucumbers – but the cocktails, sake, local beer on tap and the unique array of teas are quite worth the wait and the charming atmosphere.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESSIBLE: Yes