Bao Bar + Asian Kitchen may be the first Asian restaurant in South Florida that reveals on its menu the names of the farms where it buys its chicken, grass-fed beef and Kurobuta pork.
That's because owner Simon Bai and chef Mark Rivera are committed to serving meat raised without antibiotics or hormones. Many of the vegetables they use are organic.
Even more important, Rivera uses so little fat in his dishes that you can actually taste those quality ingredients. It helps perhaps that he trains every day for his next triathlon.
Remember the cliche about being hungry an hour after eating Chinese? It's not true. These days, much Asian food — greasy pad thai, oily Vietnamese spring rolls, gelatinously sauced Chinese chicken — are made with too much salt, too many refined carbs and too much fat. Rivera turns that around.
He has such a light touch that some of the dishes at Bao are hard to identify as Asian. That's especially true when the fusion Rivera practices is guacamole with himachi ($14). It tastes more Mexican than Japanese. It is delicious.
For the record, Rivera is Filipino-American. He most recently cheffed at TATU Asian Bar and Grill at the Seminole Hard Rock. Bai was born in Brazil to Korean parents, but raised in Suriname. Bai also owns Bottega Wine Bar and Allegria Frozen Yogurt and Cupcakes in Coconut Creek.
If Bao can wrangle its inexperienced group of employees into professional restaurant workers, it could be a hit for Las Olas. Despite the fact that we'd made a reservation and the restaurant was nearly empty, our table wasn't ready when we arrived. We had to move the furniture ourselves. The wait staff didn't seem to know to clean dirty plates from the table until we told our waiter what we expected. Altogether, Bao needs to develop teamwork, with each person helping the other to get dishes to tables and tables cleaned.
The best way to eat at Bao is to share the tapas-style small plates. The bao in the restaurant's name can be had with pork belly ($10), Black Angus skirt steak ($10), chicken ($9), blackened catch of the day ($9) or five-spice tofu ($8). It's served on fresh buns with apple kimchi, fresh herbs and cucumbers. I wish each bao came with just a little more sauce.
Ahi poke ($16) is simply tossed in sesame, and served with sweet onions and seaweed. Chinese sticky ribs ($11) are indeed sticky, but they are also trimmed of all visible fat and covered with just enough sauce. Charred octopus ($14), hot off the grill and perhaps a bit tough, is served with Thai papaya mango salad and Thai vinaigrette. Har gow dumplings ($10) are fresher than many dim sum restaurants and made with wild-caught shrimp. They're served with chile oil and crispy shallots.
Lettuce wraps ($11) combine minced chicken, jicama and shiitake mushrooms, which you spoon into ice-cold leaves. Korean street tacos ($10) are filled with barbecue skirt steak and napa cabbage slaw. The richness of pork belly ($12), served yakitori-style on wooden skewers, is offset by the accompanying cauliflower puree.
Large plates are also easily shared, although it was difficult for me to resist eating all the soba with crispy tofu ($19). It's served with steamed vegetables, roasted mushrooms, edamame, organic soba noodles and sweet organic tamari soy that coats each cube of tofu. I'll be ordering this for lunch in the coming weeks. Sesame chicken ($19) features a crispy breast, crispy rice noodles and a blood-orange-caramel sauce that doesn't take over.
For dessert, I adore the banana spring rolls ($16), in which banana cheesecake is put inside a pastry shell. It's then deep-fried and served with fresh berries, macadamia brittle dulce de leche ice cream and caramel sauce. There are some fine Thai doughnuts ($8), as well as a decadent flaming ice cream cake ($8) — vanilla ice cream, Oreo cookie crumbles and fresh fruit — although ours was not set on fire with Bacardi 151, as the menu describes.
Bao is in the old Wild East Asian Bistro space, which has dockside seating on the Himmarshee Canal. I'm hopeful a better sign for the exterior is on the way. The dining room is impossibly narrow, but a communal bar and new booths make it seem bigger. Altogether, there's seating for about 160.
With a menu of interesting cocktails, sake and plenty of wine by the glass, Bao also hopes to attract a bar crowd once dinner winds down. That's fine. I just hope these customers also take time to explore Rivera's menu.
1200 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale
Cuisine: Asian fusion
Hours: Lunch Monday-Saturday, dinner daily, Sunday brunch
Reservations: Recommended, especially for dock seating
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full service
Sound level: Can be loud later in evening
Outside smoking: Yes
For kids: Highchairs, menu items on request
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Meters and garage