Blink and you’ll miss it. Much like the Leaky Cauldron, the magical inn that inhabits J. K. Rowling’s wizarding world, the entrance to Bao Fa Garden Restaurant is hidden in plain sight on one of London’s busiest pedestrian thoroughfares. Queen’s Walk is almost always packed with tourists and families on their way to the London Eye or The London Dungeon, but if you pay attention you’ll notice a staircase set into the imposing stone edifice of County Hall. Follow it up and it takes you above the thronging crowds to a plateau above the aquarium. Then, following the path around a minimalist gravel and grass garden, you will finally come to Bao Fa Garden Restaurant’s entrance.
Once inside the Edwardian, Grade II-listed building you’ll find traditional Mandarin artifacts like carved wooden screens, intricate cabinets and, on the walls, scrolls of calligraphy and traditional Chinese artwork, which sit alongside the traditional wood-paneled dining room harmoniously. While the walls are prettily decorated, the big pull of this place is the large windows looking out onto unparalleled views of the river Thames, and the Palace of Westminster beyond.
So, as we sat gazing out the window at the iconic skyline, the waiting staff brought out dish after dish of interesting and unusual Chinese fare. The first we enjoyed were crescent dumplings coloured yellow with sweetcorn, which were filled with mushroom, carrot & spring onion.
We were also brought dim sum that looked not unlike Scrooge McDuck’s money bags, but were filled with a delicious seafood mix. Not just scallop, but plump pink prawn too, seasoned with fresh coriander.
A large stone bowl brimming with grilled eel and fried rice was swiftly placed on our table, steaming profusely. The slab of eel seemingly lacquered in the inspissated umami sauce that gleamed like polished wood, but tasted salty-sweet.
Soft, sweet pumpkin flesh coated in a crisp, gold rice flour coating – these we dipped into the sauces from other dishes.
A theatrically presented dish, the poached, purple octopus was accompanied by saffron sauce and decorated with red petals and green lances of chive.
The 2 plump little scallops were beautifully cooked; soft, topped with orange zest and sat on a small pool of stewed black beans. Its neighbour, the soft-shell crab, was coated in crisp tempura batter and stuffed with a shrimp, miso and lemon yoghurt.
The smoky, delicate fillets of red bream, with its cool, crisp skin, were accompanied by sweet segments of orange and a ginger caviar, decorated prettily with pansy petals.
The crispy fried noodles were served in a large bale, which required a determined attack before individual noodles could be teased out. On top of the noodle fortress were slices of duck, onion and pepper and the whole dish was drizzled in a rich, meaty sauce that made up for the effort expended breaking up the noodles.
Our final main course was an unusual dish: rice paper-wrapped shrimp. This edible seafood bubble wrap kept the prawns plump and juicy. Seasoned with large chunks of sea salt, the dish was served with a glass of fragrant and refreshing green tea.
Our first dessert was a saffron ice cream; its bright yellow colour revealing the not insignificant amount of saffron used to create this canary-coloured ice cream.
Our favourite dessert was the green tea crème brûlée, which we broke into with a satisfying crack of the spoon. The green tea was a light and fragrant and balanced well with the rich cream.
Chinese cuisine in the capital can be pretty predictable, but at Bao Fa Garden Restaurant I was surprised to not see the usual chow mein, prawn crackers or spring rolls on the menu. Instead I tried dishes I had never seen before and did so in an impressive dining room that boasts some incredible views. We left Bao Fa Garden Restaurant well after sunset and were greeted by the magical skyline of London by night; the London Eye, the Palace of Westminster and County Hall itself all floodlit and sparkling.
Bao Fa Garden Restaurant
County Hall, Riverside Building, Queens Walk Westminster Bridge Road, London, SE1 7PB