The man behind Flesh & Buns and Bone Daddies, Ross Shonhan once described making tonkotsu ramen as being like melting a pig into a bowl. At Flesh & Buns they don’t melt anything, they just put it in a steamed bun. Damn good it is too!
London is obsessed with these little buns right now but there’s quite a bit of debate about where this surprising food sensation actually came from. The likes of Yum Bun and Bao have attracted quite a following and helped popularise the Taiwanese name gua bao, while Flesh & Buns and Shoryu describe them as Japanese Hirata buns.
Masashi Hirata is indeed the name of the first Japanese chef to put them on the menu of his New York restaurant. However, their origins are squarely Chinese. They are not native to Taiwan either though. I assume that they became popular on the island as a result of mass immigration in the middle of the twentieth century (but I could be wrong).
All the evidence suggests that they were in fact invented over a thousand miles away in Northern China. In this area, rice isn’t widely eaten and instead steamed Mantou buns are invariably the carb of choice. Like so many recent food crazes though, they came to our shores as a result of their popularity in New York.
On our visit to Flesh & Buns, our first problem was actually finding it. It’s in Covent Garden so you might think it would be easy to track down but you’d be mistaken. The restaurant itself is underground and after an impromptu Google Maps consultation, we finally found the entrance.
It’s Shohnan’s take on a Japanese Izakaya and its ethos is casual eating and drinking. As you might imagine, it’s impossible to walk in and get a table at peak times, so it’s handy (and surprising) that you’re able to book.
We sat at a large communal table in the centre of the dining room. The music and general noise levels are on the high side (read bloody loud) but at least you’re spared listening in to your neighbours’ conversations. Nevertheless, we weren’t overburdened with elbow room and if you’re a bit of an anthrophobe this isn’t the place for you.
Our waitress was extremely enthusiastic and welcoming and took time to explain the menu. As we were mulling it over, we saw and smelled some fantastic plates of food coming out to other tables, which helped us greatly in choosing our dishes.
We ordered the tuna tataki (£10) and spicy tuna rolls (£8) to start. Both were acceptable but we didn’t taste any chilli in either dish, which was a shame. The best of the bunch was the fried squid (£8) which was crispy, well-seasoned and perfectly cooked.
Now it was time for the flesh and buns. We settled on crispy duck leg (£17) and braised pork belly (£18). You get just two buns with each meat dish and I have to say that’s a bit stingy. Take it from me, you’ll need three or four buns per dish or else it’s impossible to fit in all the meat. You can buy two additional buns for £2.50 so I’d recommend adding those on when you order.
As well as the buns, you get lettuce, cucumber, sauce and pickle and basically construct your own however you like it. It’s a bit like making a fluffy, hot sandwich.
I’d heard that the buns are pillowy soft and they definitely didn’t disappoint. The duck was also spectacular. It had a great crispy skin which added texture to the bun. It was like eating the best aromatic duck you’ve ever had.
The braised pork was soft and flavoursome but unfortunately the meat was starting to dry out and become fibrous. I’d also have loved a bit of crackling for some added bite (this dish is now called crispy piglet belly, so perhaps our wish has been granted). Nevertheless, both dishes were enjoyable and there was certainly no shortage of meat!
We weren’t sure which desserts to order so we consulted the waitress who steered us away from the crispy bananas. Apparently they are not too popular ‘unless you love bananas’. I only wanted them because I thought they would be like banana fritters (i.e. trashy buffet style), but was told they’re not. We took her advice and settled on Kinako donuts and a chocolate fondant, rather than their ‘showstopping’ flaming s’mores.
The donuts were certainly different. The texture was a little strange and not fluffy as you’d expect. Worse still was the black sugar custard filling which was very sweet but not particularly pleasant. The chocolate fondant was, well a good chocolate fondant.
We enjoyed our meal at Flesh & Buns. Some people complain about the communal seating and the noise level and it’s true that neither are ideal. I’ve also seen complaints about pricing but to be honest it cost us less than £90 all in for three courses, drinks and service. I’d say that’s pretty fair for good food and decent service. It’s true that you can get fantastic buns at Yum Bun or Bao for a fraction of the price but that’s not really a fair comparison, seeing as this is a proper sit-down restaurant in the middle of town.
I imagine that the popularity of Flesh & Buns will die a little down once the novelty of the hirata bun (or whatever you want to call it) and building your own food has worn off. In saying that, though, there are still long queues outside Bone Daddies and these guys are experts at catching onto trends and making them stick.
They certainly know how to create a buzz and draw a (trendy and foodie) crowd, that’s for sure. I’d definitely eat here again but I don’t see it being any time soon.
Total Cost: £88.20
Address: 41 Earlham St, London, WC2H 9LX
Phone: 020 7632 9500
Find them on Facebook: facebook.com/FleshAndBuns
Follow them on Twitter: @FleshandBuns