After last Wednesday's rumored soft opening never materialized, news of the real thing finally appeared in the form of a golden ticket email the next day: Recipients were told that doors would open Thursday evening, October 16, and stay open until late night. All menu items would be half-price for the soft opening. Guests should be prepared to present a copy of the email for entry, and to keep it a secret from the media.
And with that, Bao Bao Dumpling House had a not-so-secret line down Spring Street on the rainiest, ugliest night of October. Tips rolled in from all over town about the scene at Tao Yuan chef Cara Stadler's newest venture. The soft opening continued Friday and Saturday evenings, delighting fans as well as passers-by who were lucky enough to stumble upon Portland's latest and hottest opening, anticipated since May.
The exterior is unassuming, with a small, hanging sign the only indicator that Bao Bao now occupies the former West End Deli. The interior design is striking, with its mix of cold blues and warm oranges against a clean backdrop of white and black, light fixtures that evoke Chinese lanterns or temple architecture, and an immense dragon centerpiece along the left wall. The service area behind the bar and over to the kitchen is dropped below ground-level and evokes an orchestra pit.
Eating Portland Alive posted first impressions the next day, singling out the "lamb, black bean chili, and peanut" dumplings for special mention (pan-fried, he implores, not boiled - each set of six dumplings can be ordered either way except for a few special cases). Photos include a tea menu that didn't seem to be floating around the restaurant by Saturday night, though perhaps it's available upon request. Overall, the blogger was impressed: "At the risk of sounding like a fortune cookie, I foresee very good things coming from this place."
All prices on the food menu (which had changed slightly by Saturday) end in the number .08, notable enough that multiple tables asked why. A waitress explained that this is a lucky number. She also listed off desserts, which may not be on their own menu yet. Desserts included fried buns filled with red bean paste (with a light glaze which made them seem like a cross between a western donut and an eastern bun), a vegan chocolate mousse with non-vegan coconut whipped cream, and the "interesting" panna cotta that Eating Portland Alive mentions.
Stadler has yet to announce official opening hours for the restaurant, but she did inform Eater late last week that if all went well with the soft opening, Bao Bao would open to the public for "dinner and late night" tomorrow, October 21, and for lunch, dinner, and late night on Wednesday, October 22. "Dinner and late night" is likely to be 5 p.m. - 1 a.m. again, and lunch will probably start at 11 a.m.
Update: Front of house manager Sami Smart clarifies that the hours on Tuesday, October 21 will be 5 p.m. - 1 a.m. Starting Wednesday, October 22, regular hours kick in, which means Tuesday - Sunday from 11:30 a.m. - 1 a.m. The restaurant will have a lunch special from 11:30 a.m. - 2 p.m.
Bao Bao Dumpling House, 133 Spring Street, Portland, (207) 772-8400, Facebook. Open Tuesday - Sunday 11:30 a.m. - 1 a.m., lunch special 11:30 a.m. - 2 p.m. Reservations taken only for parties of 8 or more.