In the Faubourg Marigny, Bao & Noodle is helping lead a wave of next-generation Chinese restaurants in New Orleans. The restaurant's focus on serving fresh ingredients in a welcoming, neighborly atmosphere is energizing, and should help keep customers returning as the menu's flavor profile continues to find its feet.
Located inside the former home of Sound Cafe, Bao & Noodle is a BYOB establishment that feels open and breezy, with clean, white walls trimmed in robin's egg blue. Small plates hold steady around the $5 mark, with green onion-speckled, crispy scallion pancakes dipped in salty-tart black vinegar dipping sauce emerging as a customer favorite. The "strange flavor" peanuts are a one-of-a-kind taste treat, with a chewy texture and candied (almost brittle-like) clustering that harbors a surprising punch of chile pepper, vinegar and sugar.
The house-made noodles are easily the restaurant's most outstanding feature, presenting diners with a swath of chewy, fresh pastas that steal the show in each dish. Bao & Noodle's stable of creations have a delicate texture and tender mouthfeel that makes even the wiggly-shaped biang biang noodles seem pillowy, spotlighting how high-quality ingredients and preparations can turn a staple element of Chinese food into a scene stealer.
Generally, each dish has a number of delightful (often unfamiliar) flavors and textures, but each also lacks an element to round out the plates into a well-balanced meal. Dan dan noodles arrive like a spool of thick, unfurled ribbon in a small bowl, topped with velvety, slow-cooked pork that makes for hearty, wintertime comfort food. But the dish's purported pickled mustard is all but absent, and thin shards of cured vegetables fail to provide a vinegary counterpoint, allowing the dish to slide into satisfying-but-unremarkable territory. An egg noodle-based bowl offers sweet, tender tail-on shrimp on a bed of buttery, rich pasta, but the trace amounts of XO sauce (or any sauce) leave the dish seasoned with little to complement the shrimp. Heat-laced, cumin-rubbed ground lamb stirred up from the bottom of a bowl of heavy, slinky biany biang noodles is earthy and peppery, but the dish needs a textural pop of crunch that simply isn't present.
The tea egg is perhaps the most disappointing example of this lack of balance. Tea eggs are a traditional savory Chinese snack, in which the shell of a hardboiled egg is cracked the egg is boiled again in a blend of tea and spices. The end result is a visually arresting, marbled sphere with an abstract web of charcoal-colored lines running across the egg's white interior. Bao & Noodle's tea egg is expertly prepared, with a cross-section of black tea, star anise and soy sauce notes seeping into the egg to create a well-rounded, tantalizing experience for the palate. The dish (traditionally a street food), however, costs $12 and arrives one to a plate, paired with bundles of unseasoned, wilted greens and a bland white rice.
The price of large plates generally seems high (roughly $13 on average), even when taking into account the level of handmade execution. It seems like dishes need an additional level of flavor and complexity or simplification and lower costs.
A duo of dessert options — almond jelly and milky ginger custard — pay homage to the way palate cleansing dishes are often the best way to end a heavily-spiced meal. This is particulary evident in the preparation of the almond jelly with osmanthus (a flowering plant similar to sweet olive) syrup. An arrangement of white, jiggly, gently nutty cubes form a neat stack in a bath of honey-tinged, floral sugar water, providing the kind of clean flavor and glossy texture not often achieved, but most welcome, as a final tasting note.