It didn’t occur to me until far too late that 97 Hot Pot, a distinctive soupery in the heart of Chinatown, is actually a buffet restaurant—but not in the conventional sense with chafing dishes overflowing with egg rolls, lemon chicken and almond gai ding. No, 97 Hot Pot is a buffet of another stripe, where a roiling pot of soup stock of your choice is inserted right into the table in front of you, atop a heating element you control. And while you do have to get up to avail yourself of the buffet of dips and seasonings, the comestibles you cook in your stock are delivered to your table by a small army of servers who prowl the dining room, dim-sum style.
“Dim-sum style” actually describes the large dining room’s bustling atmosphere, from the crowd of diners at the entrance jockeying for a seat to the lucky patrons who are already collecting their dishes of chili paste, soya, XO sauce, fresh herbs and a plethora of other condiments, along with the aforementioned server army grabbing check-boxed orders, and a cheerful manager who was kind enough to get co-diner and I started on this novel experience.
Co-diner selected a Szechuan broth with lemongrass and hot chilies bobbing on the top, while I had the mushroom and truffle stock, the eponymous elements of which were clearly visible. (The question of whether the broth is vegetarian is moot, as non-meat eaters will be hard-pressed to get their money’s worth out of the flesh-centric menu.)
This is the part where I admit we should have cottoned to the notion that we were actually at a buffet, seeing as the fixed price for the experience is $25.95 (plus, mysteriously, $2 extra for the stock). The manager helpfully checked a few essentials we’d want in our soup—sliced sirloin, housemade seafood “mashes” and a couple of appetizers (green onion cakes, spring rolls and a weird sweet fried bun)—but after that we weren’t sure how to proceed. We added sliced pork belly and lamb to the list, as well as shrimp, baby bok choy and shiitake mushroom, thinking those sounded like good things to make soup out of. We fetched chili paste, sate sauce, soya and few other dips because we were supposed to.
The mashes were small minced portions of various seafoods—squid, shrimp and mixed fish—served in plastic tubes with a little paddle to scrape them off into the soup. Our server showed us how and gave us a rough estimate of how long they’d need to cook. We found the mashed fish a little too fishy, but the squid and especially the shrimp mashes were very toothsome. The thin-sliced meats cooked fast and took on the flavour of the stock, just as the stock took on the flavour of the meat. The spicy, robust Szechuan broth was the winner in this regard.
We ordered sliced chicken, quail eggs that arrived hardboiled and stayed creamy in the centre even after immersion, sweet potato noodles, taro root and Japanese pumpkin to fancy up our stock further. There were plenty of options we were less excited about: organ meats, blood curd, Spam, baby sausage. But it wasn’t until a pair of veteran hot potters were seated next to us that we realized we’d strategized poorly, focusing too much on the soup and not enough on the things we cooked in it. Within moments of arriving, it seemed like the vets’ table was covered with seafood like mussels, basa and whole prawns, meatballs and fish balls of many hues, some cuts of beef we’d overlooked and heaping portions of greens—the manager later informed us that watercress, tong ho and siu choy were the most popular vegetables.
All the same, co-diner declared the experience “fun” and we promised each other that we’d come back with more friends in tow, lay off the appetizers to concentrate on the most succulent morsels the menu offered, and make a night of it. In big-city style, 97 Hot Pot offers plenty of opportunity to enjoy the experience, staying open until midnight through the week and until 2 am on Friday and Saturday.
97 Hot Pot
10602 – 97 Street