"Normal? Are you sure you want normal?"
Our waitress looks at us with scepticism as she takes our order. "It's very hot. Do you like chilli?"
We're ordering our soup base at the newly opened Haymarket Hot Pot Restaurant. The available options seem arbitary - normal or extra hot (presumably for the locals), or mild and ultra mild (presumably for the faint of heart). In other words, you're either a chilli fanatic or you're a spectacular wimp.
"Yes, yes, we'll have normal," we say, almost pleading for us to believe us.
She nods reluctantly, as though still unconvinced about our chilli tolerance.
By a happy coincedence, we've timed our visit to Haymarket Hot Pot with a sudden cold snap in Sydney. The restaurant, on the former Saigon Pho site, has been furnished with heavy-set chairs and tables set with inbuilt hotplates. Unfortunately the tables seem to be designed for patrons who are either short or thin - I'm neither, which means I have to sit back from the table lest I knee the metal support frame.
The menu is a DIY tick-list. First you choose your hot pot soup base: spice or chicken or half-and-half. Then you choose what you wish to cook in it. Choices are listed under meat, meatball, seafood, vegetables, tofu and noodles. Some of the more intriguing options include pork brains, duck tongue and blood jelly, but there are plenty of less adventurous dishes like wontons, prawns and slices of beef and lamb.
Half spice and half chicken soup $15
Our half-and-half soup arrives in a pot with a yin-and-yang shaped divider in the middle. The chicken soup comes with a mass of carrots, bean sprouts, shallots, Chinese red dates and goji berries. Our attention is more focussed on the spice soup which is an ominous crimson red, marked by floating dried chillies. The soups are placed on the burner and brought to a steady boil. The spice soup froths and bubbles until it is opaque.
By the time the soup has boiled, a metal trolley is noisily wheeled to our table. On it are our chosen dishes, each plated separately so we can cook them in whatever order we prefer.
Beef slices $8
We start immediately with the beef slices, scrolls of thinly sliced beef that are ribboned with layers of fat.
We dip the beef into the chilli broth. The soup is spicy but clings only briefly to the swirls of meat we place inside. The heat builds slowly on the tongue until our lips tingle. There are a few sips of tea here and there, but we battle on. The heat can be tempered by dipping the spicy meat into optional bowls of sauce. We ordered the sesame seed paste (nutty and rich), sesame oil with garlic, shacha Taiwanese sauce and satay (the chilli soy bean version, not the peanut sauce) which cost $2 per bowl.
It's up to you which side you want to cook your food in. We cook the subtler ingredients on the chicken soup side, but the joy of DIY cooking is you can do as you please.
Fish tofu $6 and beef slices $8
Frozen scallops don't have a whole lot of flavour, but the fish tofu is sweet and the lamb is decadently fatty.
Fish egg ball $8 and lamb slices $8
Inside the fish egg balls
My favourite dish is probably the fish egg balls, fish paste filled with a gooey paste of sweet and salty fish eggs - always a highlight.
Lamb slices $8
White radish $3, luncheon meat $7, fish tofu $6 and potato $2
Luncheon meat is pretty much like Spam, soft and fatty with the marks from the tin can from which they came, still clearly visible. I quite enjoy the juicy sweetness of the radish which act to cleanse the palate. The potato absorbs the flavours of the soup, and I'm told if you leave it in long enough, it will become super soft and creamy.
Luncheon meat $7
Quail eggs $5
Quail eggs seem innocuous, but once heated in the soup, the yolks almost liquify, contrasting against the firmness of the slippery egg whites.
It's my first time eating kelp in hotpot and I find them quite addictive. The kelp seaweed has been cut into thick and long slices - they almost resemble belts. Some pieces are thin, others are thick. I love their slippery texture, especially appreciating their blistered and bubbled surface, presumably generated when the seaweed is deep-fried. Later when we drink the chicken soup, we find there's quite a pronounced seaweed flavour which is quite pleasant.
Tong ho choy $4
Tong ho is my other hot-pot staple. These pretty leaves of garland chrysanthemum have a slightly medicinal and bitter flavour. They cook quickly, wilting in the soup to a vibrant green, and seem to help offset the richness of the meal.
Fried red bean crepe $6
We share the fried red bean crepe for dessert. The pastry is hot and crunchy, filled with an oozing paste of sweetened red bean. It's quite rich and one serve is more than enough for the three of us.
We ended up paying $30 per head and we managed to eat "normal" without tongue paralysis. We'd like to think the chilli scale needs an edit or two because "normal" surely qualifies as "legendary". Perhaps "extra hot" should be renamed "Are you out of your mind".
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Haymarket Hot Pot Restaurant
1/93-105 Quay Street, Haymarket Chinatown, Sydney
Tel: +61 (02) 9211 0105
Open 7 days
Monday to Thursday 12pm-11pm
Friday to Sunday 12pm-12am
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1/25/2010 05:25:00 am