The newest Asian invasion in Portland is Cara Stadler’s uber cool Bao Bao Dumpling House–with Portlanders already craving every last morsel
Bao Bao takes the honor of being Portland’s most highly anticipated restaurant opening of the year. Chef and co-owner (with mother Cecile) Cara Stadler, 26, has already proven her prowess in the Asian fusion kitchen with her award-winning Tao-Yaun in Brunswick where her utopian small-plate pan-Asian inflected menu has earned her the ultimate accolade of genius.
It would be an act of sheer madness, though, if Bao Bao did not live up to expectations. Rest assured, after two visits, Stadler’s kitchen is in fine form. (Though I took issue with a few dishes.)
With an homage to Asian dumplings, Bao Bao is offering what everyone wants. Portland gastronomes can’t get enough of these Dadaist dough wrappers filled with pork, lamb, chicken or fish. Just witness the swarm of diners converging nightly like loons at Pai Men Miyake and Empire Chinese. Except there the menus are broader with small and large plates that go beyond a strict dumpling lineup.
And therein lies the rub. Generally at dim sum restaurants — from Hong Kong to the Chinatowns of San Francisco, New York and Boston — the dumpling choices are starters, not the main event. And I asked myself, is that all there is at Bao Bao? After my first dinner there, three dishes totaling 18 dumplings (six per order) turned the two of us into stuffed Buddhas primed to waddle down the garden path. A few lighter dishes include salads, soups and marinated vegetables. But I realized after several visits Bao Bao is where you go for serious snacking: Lunch is soup, greens and dumplings; afternoon tea with bean curd buns or loading up on multiple small bites of delectable dumpling carbs at dinner and beyond to 1 a.m., making it one of the latest last-call restaurants in the city.
Still, menu quips aside, the food can be extraordinary and occasionally falls flat. And the room is a beauty. The quaintness of the former West End Deli space may be gone, but it has been transformed into a cool, suave dining room that whispers posh fusion soul.
The big dragon sculpture hung high on the wall is a dramatic piece of art, as is the carved ceiling and the lighting fixtures as modernistic as a Mies van der Rohe installation. The comfy banquettes along the wall and tables for two and four in the middle and corners of the room make for some very comfortable seating. I particularly liked the bar, which has about 10 seats, and the servers who stand behind it are on a lowered floor joist making for an interesting juxtaposition of diners to servers.
Tuesday was opening night after a hectic weekend that held the cabal of its soft opening. We tried to get in on Saturday at 6 p.m. to no avail. There’s no place to wait for a table anyway because the bar is taken up by diners, not drinkers. And there’s no host or hostess to greet you. A waiter, however, took our cell number and said he’d call when space opened up (they do that at Pai Men and Boda too). When the call did come we were already well into a fine dinner at Empire Chinese.
When we returned on Tuesday, the opening night to the public, I wasn’t taking any chances and convinced my dinner mate that we had to be there by 5 p.m. sharp because I expected the long lines of a Black Friday door buster. In reality, we were the only ones there until 6 p.m. when the restaurant stared to peak at 7 p.m.
We ordered some of the small, cold plates to precede the dumplings, but everything came out at the same time, an annoying feature at small-plate restaurants.
The Asian slaw held a mound of shredded cabbage, shaved pea pods and peanuts. It was dressed in a shallot-infused oil, which I thought wasn’t assertive enough and could have used a bigger hit of vinegar.
A bowl of peanuts in Beijing black vinegar seemed like an ideal dish to go with cocktails. I was expecting dry, spicy nuts, but these were like bald orbs wet with vinegar and flecks of daikon, scallion and cilantro. It’s an unusual, yet amazing dish. But unless you have the dexterity of a spider’s tendrils, these slippery buggers are nearly impossible to eat with chopsticks.
Dumplings remain the star of the show — prepared boiled/steamed or pan fried. Not to be missed are the wondrous steamed hake sheathed in shredded dumpling dough wrapped around the filling. They’re like the Asian version of quenelles — delicate, sweetly flavored and incredible melt-in-your-mouth texture.
Another highlight was the lamb dumplings, with a forcemeat of black bean, lamb, peanuts and chili peppers, just mildly spicy. The Kung pao chicken dumplings were interesting, a riff on the Szechuan cuisine’s stir-fry dish. But the filling was dull without appropriate hits of chili peppers. The next batch of spicy pork and cabbage dumplings, however, were divinely assertive and bold. We also had a bowl of leafy greens in oyster sauce — not my favorite dish with sappy flavors.
Our dessert choice was the pandan leaf panna cotta with mango cream. It’s an acquired taste to appreciate the intricate flavor of this herb. The flavor is off-putting at first with hints of lemon, vanilla and sour whiffs of cream that taste like it’s gone slightly off. With each successive bite, though, the flavors tempered into a compelling sweet.
At lunch the next day the menu came more into focus for me. The portions are big and these dishes are eminently sharable. The smashed cucumbers is a brilliant preparation of roughly sliced cukes in garlic, black vinegar and chili oil. Followed by the heady mix of pork mapo tofu dumplings filled with a forcemeat of ground pork, tofu, ginger and Asian spices, lunch was very satisfying. They offer a $12 lunch special with 10 dumplings, a special of the day or one of the cold dishes. Two people could easily share this and have a whopping, economical meal.
This time I enjoyed a different dessert–the baked buns (or were they fried?) filled with red bean curd. Three come on a plate topped with an icing made of sweetened condensed milk. They looked like hot-cross buns but the similarity ends there. The bean curd, which can be pasty and unctuous, was sweet and creamy. I didn’t think I could eat all three buns. But alas, I did.
New York and San Francisco may have its Danny Bowiens and Joe Ngs as emperors of Asian fusion, but we have our own red-hot version in Bao Bao, brought to us by Cara Stadler, the precocious keeper of the flame for fine Asian cuisine in Maine.
Bao Bao Dumpling House, 133 Spring St., Portland, ME (207) 772-8400. Open 11: 30 a.m. to 1 a.m. No reservations except for large parties. Website coming soon.