The review said the speciality dish was Hot Pot, which involves cooking wafer thin slices of meat and vegetables in a stock pot at the table. I haven't seen this anywhere before, although I remember in the mid-90s there was a bit of a fad for hot stone table top cooking (anyone remember Deals on Hammersmith Broadway?)
So we went along on a family outing. The restaurant was packed with Chinese people, with only one table occupied by Westerners. Usually a good sign in ethnic places. We thought we'd have to wait for a table, but instead were lead downstairs to a slightly depressing storeroom with plastic tables and chairs. There were a couple of other tables already occupied, and we helped the waitress to take the chairs stacked on top of the table down and lay out the chopsticks.
The menu was almost entirely in Chinese. In English, it merely said Hot Pot, and then a list of ingredients. We had no idea what we were supposed to do. Was it like tapas, where you order several items that take your fancy? Or did you pick a category such as Meat or Seafood and get all those items? We asked the waitress, who didn't really speak English. Instead she asked us if there was anything on the menu we didn't want. Tripe was immediately vetoed, but we were happy with anything else. She then asked what we wanted to drink: beer, coke or water. No varieties of beer or choice of soft drinks, just whatever they got in from the last delivery. While she got our drinks, we snacked on some raw peanuts and some kimchi. I've seen a lot of online chatter about kimchi, but had never tasted it. It had a strange texture, but I enjoyed the spicy sauce.
She came back with some beers and a hot plate. We helped her shuffle the table nearer the wall so the lead for the hot plate could reach the plug. She brought us a pan of stock, divided down the middle, with spicy on one side and normal down the other. Then the food started arriving.
Before we knew it, the table was covered in plate upon plate of food. Slices of beef, pork, lamb, ham, tofu, frozen tofu, tofu skin (?), rice noodles, chinese leaves, two types of mushroom, kelp, squid, prawns, razor clams, fish balls, fish sticks, fish skewers, potatoes, turnips, garlic sauce and satay.
A waitress with better English explained that the turnips and potatoes would take 8 minutes to cook, but everything else either just need reheating, or in the case of the meat and fish, would change colour as it cooked. After messing about with the timer, and realising that instead of alerting us to our ready food, it just turned the whole hot plate off, we settled in. Hundreds of items were thrown in the stocks, sometimes to be fished out straight away and eaten, other times left to linger until someone else with the ladle hit the bounty. I tried holding things in with chopsticks, but my skills were too poor and the steam burned my hands.
The combination of the holiday feel (plastic tables, weird food, incomprehensible menu), the intense steamy heat, and several beers made us rather silly, and we giggled insanely as we dunked the blue prawns into the stock until they turned pink. L spent a long time discussing how a razor clam resembled the fossils he studies in class, including a detailed anatomical description. Periodically the waitress would turn up and be baffled by our requests for tap water or top up our stock pots with fresh juice.
When we could literally eat no more, we asked for the bill with some trepidation. We had eaten almost everything on the menu... how high would our bill be?
The food came to £14.50 each. I guess that ordering the hot pot essentially means ordering everything on the menu unless you specify otherwise. Bargain!
I really enjoyed our evening out, and we had more fun than we've probably had at any restaurant during our entire time at uni. The food was cheap and plentiful, and pretty good apart from one dodgy prawn. I particularly enjoyed the strange Chinese mushrooms (they looked like seaweed) and the kelp (which *is* seaweed). I also really enjoyed putting a load of random vegetables in, and then some meat on top, and fishing it all out together, as the unifying flavour of the stock pulled it all together.
Next time some one adventurous wants to go for dinner, I'll even try the tripe.