You have to be financially insane to open a new restaurant during Cape Town’s quiet winter months. Or just confident that the formula is spot on. Bao Down’s bronze-rimmed tables have been full since the small modern Asian restaurant opened in June. It is a stone’s throw from Gardens Shopping Centre and a snappy Uber ride from Cape Town’s CBD.
Graham Oldfield, 30, was head chef at Liam Tomlin’s Chefs Warehouse in Bree Street. Wife Philippa Oldfield, 28, catered for events and made wedding cakes. Previously they both had private-chef gigs on yachts, and Graham also worked for his brother-in-law, Adam Whiteman, at Asian restaurant Hallelujah.
The young couple’s dream of opening their own place was fast-tracked when they found the right space. “Bao Down is about bao, obviously. And respect for good food,” Graham says. “I have no training in Asian food: I just enjoy eating it. I wanted to cook food that I love.”
Diners are a mix of urban professionals and those after good food fast. Strangers squeeze in next to each other at bar stools under ball-shaped pendant lights. Tables suit groups better.
“We don’t want to make this a ridiculously expensive space,” Philippa says. “It should be for a quick drink and a bao at the bar. Or a longer dining experience with everything on the menu.”
We worked through most of the small menu. Tender pork belly slices in barbeque sauce, inside steamed bao buns. Delicious. Steamed celeriac fingers with charred bok choi, Brussels sprouts, edamame beans, and crisp shallots. Ditto.
Crisply fried prawn toast bao were delicate until dipped into soya, garlic, and lemon. Kimchi rice reinforced a garlic kick. Sticky chicken wings had some heat. “I want food to stand out and not just be bang average,” Graham says. “So certain things will stay when we make menu changes.”
Philippa’s crack pie is borrowed from New York’s Momofuko Milk Bar. Her salty miso cornflakes diffused the sugar rush of the rich fudgy filling on a biscuit crust.
Bao Down’s uncluttered dusty pink walls support pot plants and retro Chinese posters. A green bar counter is echoed in green glass tumblers and plates. Asian cookbooks are stacked above. And a kitsch gold maneki-neko seems to be bringing good fortune.
- Bao Down is open from 6pm, Tuesday to Saturday, for dinner only.
- From the September edition of Wanted magazine.