Bao (aka Chinese-style steamed, filled buns) may be humble looking enough, but chef Conor Swanson has been considering about them for a long time: Their construction. How to make them especially fluffy. What to layer inside. "I've been experimenting with buns of all sorts for about five years," said Swanson, who trained at the French Culinary Institute before working in the kitchen at David Chang's Má Pêche (part of the Momofuku empire), as well as New York City spots such as Narcissa. On days off from those jobs, he would travel to Flushing to eat, absorbing flavors and techniques from across Asia.
After a series of private dinners to test-run his bao — as well as a signature fried chicken to go inside of them — Swanson, 28, has debuted them at his new café, Bird & Bao, which opened on South Ocean Avenue in Patchogue on Nov. 9, which also happened to be his birthday.
A handful of bao ($5.50 each) form the crux of the menu, including a version filled with what Swanson calls "a combination of Taiwanese and Japanese fried chicken." To produce it, he marinates dark meat in ginger, garlic, mirin and gluten-free soy sauce before coating the pieces in potato starch and deep-frying. Crispy pieces are then wedged into a bun with sweet chili sauce, pickled daikon, coriander and crushed peanuts that have been fried and blended with salt and rock sugar.
Another bao, called "patchog," highlights blanched, braised, shredded pork belly that has met with soy sauce, ginger, star anise, Shaoxing wine and scallions during the five-hour-plus preparation. Snacks ($4 to $8) run to shoestring fries dusted with Chinese five-spice powder, fried chicken sans bun (for those avoiding gluten) and a crushed cucumber salad. Drinks are simple, ranging from limeade to San Pellegrino sparkling water.
A twist of fate landed Bird & Bao in Patchogue: The aftermath of a flood forced Swanson out of the Brooklyn building where he lived; the Kings Park native decided to return to Long Island, where he scoured the South Shore for a spot. In Patchogue, he found a bustling scene where family and friends lived; his uncle, Joe Pohalski, led the renovation. Bird & Bao's physical space is as focused and minimalist as the menu, with 16 seats, including a window counter, and a modern pale-wood-and-metal aesthetic. Swanson's childhood friend, Connor Moire, serves as general manager.
Swanson said he plans to expand the menu in coming months. What might a breakfast bao bun look like? Stay tuned.
Bird & Bao opens every day at noon, closing on Mondays. Bird & Bao, 58 S. Ocean Ave., Patchogue. birdandbao.com