Into every life a little rain must fall. That’s how I feel about my dining and drinking experiences in Seattle, which were almost uniformly stellar, with one singular exception, Bako. Bako opened recently, with plenty of fuss and fanfare, as a self-proclaimed “upscale” Chinese restaurant on the north end of Capitol Hill. I thrilled to fancies of Hong Kong-style visionary culinary excellence. What I ate, instead, was uniformly brown, bland, and soggy. In fact, I disliked everything about Bako, from the mustaches on the bartenders (please, hipsters: shave for 2012) to the self-consciously sleek interior, to our irritatingly perky, alarmingly ditzy server. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Bako’s interior begs to be described in quotation marks, tongue firmly in cheek: it’s “airy,” “modern,” and “urban,” with wry “humorous” notes, such as a stencil of an advertisement for Chinese cigarettes on the wall by the bathroom (“naughty”) and a “sultry” photograph on the door to the women’s room. The focus on packaging carries over to the menus which are so “cute” but “chic” that they feel like wedding invitations. Take the cocktail menu.
About a dozen cocktails are spread out in a glossy, pocket-sized five-or-six-page menu organized, apparently, according to type (e.g., “classic variations” versus “Bako now!”) and, more obscurely, according to the mood the cocktail supposedly sets (for example, “civility”, “spunky!” or “hotel room”). (Exclamation marks mine.) I went “hotel room” but was brought an Aviation (incidentally, made properly, with crème de violette). Still, it wasn’t the drink I’d ordered, and when I pointed this out to our server she suggested I try it and if I didn’t like it “we’ll buy it back from you.” No, actually. I didn’t order it, ergo, I hadn’t bought it yet. When she returned to the table to take our food order, I told her I didn’t want the drink and she repeated, perkily, “O-KAY! We’ll go ahead and buy that back from you then!” I began to get irritated.
The menu consists of small plates (please, another trend that needs to vanish with 2011) priced between $6 and $16, which adds up considering that you’re advised to order at least three dishes per person. Our aggressively friendly server asked if we had any food intolerances. Yes, in fact. We told her that friend J is violently allergic to shellfish. In a Chinese restaurant, this eliminates about half the menu, so we ordered a few starters and said we needed some time to think about the rest.
Let’s get the good news out of the way. We liked the man tou buns ($9) – slices of succulent char-grilled pork and pickled cucumber sandwiched in warm clam-shell buns, served with a delicate cabbage salad.
Soon our server returned to the table. “Do you have any recommendations?” J asked. Our server suggested the Singapore rice noodles. I’ve had Singapore rice noodles before. “What’s that made with?” I asked. “It’s one of our most popular dishes, with curried noodles, bean sprouts, prawns…” I looked at her, horrified. “He’s allergic to shellfish.” I said. “He could DIE.” J, a sweet-natured person, smiled at her faintly. He seemed stunned. “Any shellfish,” he said for the second time. “Can you please tell the kitchen,” I said.
Ultimately, we ordered the eight treasure rice ($11), the ginger scallion noodles ($8), and the chicken hotpot ($13). We said we’d order more if we were hungry. I was actually shocked by the unimaginativeness of the menu; it read like an “Asian” potluck organized by a group of mildly adventurous middle-American soccer moms. Based upon the food we got, I wouldn’t have been surprised if one of those soccer moms had been transplanted into Bako’s kitchen. As it was, I was surprised to turn around and see a Chinese chef.
The eight treasure rice, made with “healthy” brown rice instead of white and served in a bowl that contained slightly less than a single portion, was sodden with soy. Sure, everyone likes soft egg yolk, but as a gimmick it’s not much (even home cooks can poach eggs) and certainly not enough to carry an otherwise weak dish.
The chicken hotpot, supposedly a showpiece, was another depressingly brown, mushy dish, unenlivened by crunch, colour, or spice. Even the wood ear mushrooms had been leached of their taste and instead taken on a flavour which can only be described as brown.
The ginger scallion noodles – spongy noodles topped with brownish overcooked cabbage and accompanied by an oily scallion sauce that also, incredibly, was brownish – were nearly inedible, and made me lose my appetite to try anything else on the menu.
It’s amazing that Bako’s gotten it so horribly wrong. It feels like a place that hired a costly PR firm for “concept development” and got so carried away with creating a marketable package that they forgot about the food. I don’t give a toss about the package. In fact, give me a cardboard takeaway box, and stuff it with garlicky spicy crunchy exciting real Chinese food. If this is “upscale,” I say, “no thanks.”
606 Broadway E, 98102
Price per person: we paid $45 each, which includes five $9 cocktails
The verdict: Avoid