CHARLES J Tan recently set out to discover what wonders Melbourne’s newest steamed bun restaurant, Wonderbao, had to offer. Here’s what he thought.
Wonderbao has been abuzz with people since its buns opened for steaming in August.
I was warned about the restaurant’s hipster elements, but the fresh logo – an appealing yellow and bold brand – was so cleverly chic, we decided to take the plunge.
There was a bunch of us, so we ordered a variety of buns including the da pork bao, char siu bao and some sort of silky fried bun thing. I can’t remember its official name, but it’s the only tofu variety on the menu.
Honestly, the baos were a little underwhelming.The char siu bao was nice, but there was only a thin layer of char siu-like paste with the occasional meat in it. It was kind of like a lamington cake with a very ungenerous layer of raspberry jam. You expected so much more. Just up the road in Chinatown, you could find heaps of similar, though not as hip Chinese restaurants, that sell char siu buns filled with a whole lot more char siu jam. The da pork bun was one size up from the char siu bun. Inside were large chunks of sausage, shitake mushroom, wedges of boiled egg and marinated minced pork. It was tasty and a little better than the char siu, but the dough was too thick. By this time I was thinking, did I give in to eating carbs this afternoon for this? I had irrational thoughts of shearing a cat.
I was not impressed, but I still had my final bun left – the silky fried tofu bao/bun sandwich. It reminded me of a mini bánh mì or Vietnamese baguette. Steamed mantou buns sandwiched a silky fried tofu filling, topped with crushed peanuts, giam chye (salted preserved vegetables) and a sliver of coriander.
It was by far the best combination and the most inventive. The tofu was crispy on the outside with a light crunch. The inside was soft, delicate and silky smooth. The small dollop of sauce hidden in the sandwich bed was a nice after thought. I was most impressed and wished I had ordered two of them instead of whatever else I had before.
Because it was a schizophrenic spring Melbourne day, I decided I needed to cap the meal off with something hearty and warm. My friend Marcus and I opted for piping hot soya milk. They served the milk in takeaway coffee cups, which I thought was very novel. I was taken – until I had a sip.
The drink tasted like the instant soya milk dessert mix you buy from the Asian grocer. I was expecting it to be thick and smooth, but it was grainy and diluted. They should have doubled the instant mix proportion to water.
But what do I know? It’s just bao and soya milk. Maybe I’m being too demanding. Maybe I should leave my Asian roots and expectations behind. But my friend Marcus was similarly underwhelmed.
He had the custard bao and the pork belly bun. He described the pork belly as bland and slightly tough to bite. Certainly not chewy and soft as one would expect. The custard bun was worse. It was certainly not silky. It certainly was not velvety. It was soft like a slightly over-boiled egg yolk. Dry, slightly firm and soft.
I was in Hong Kong recently and the custard buns oozed warm, fuzzy, tasty, velvety, smooth, silky, gooey, sinful goodness when you cracked one open. The custard bun Marcus had did not conjure any of those unicorn-exploding-rainbow-adjectives.
When I got back to the office, I decided to read up on Wonderbao’s origin and philosophy. Apparently, their recipes come from “three generations of bao making” , which reminded me of a recent trip to Singapore. There was this famous char kway teow stall we used to frequent as a family. It was always a highlight on our supper table. A while back, the owner passed his knowledge over to his son when he got too old to work, but word quickly spread it wasn’t good anymore. People said the fire and art was lost when it was passed on to the younger generation. I still enjoyed it though it didn’t taste as awesome as I remembered it to be.
Wonderbao was the same. It mightn’t have been quite the authentic experience I expected, but at least we looked way cooler eating 包 alongside today’s generation of hipsters who know how to pronounce Chinese words along with their English.
Very postmodern. Very global. May Wonder包 grow more Da (大 – big) in time to come.