We arrived at Mr. Hotpot in Estevan Village not sure what to expect.
The place is small: only eight tables for four, and they were full. Not a chair left empty, and every face Asian: a promising sign in a Chinese restaurant. But a two-hour wait would not do, so we took a good look around, noted the steaming vats of hearty soups centred on each table, and the colourful displays of thin-sliced raw meats, and assorted bowls of sauces decorated with chili coins and minced herbs. The whole place smelled divine, and all those Asian faces wore expressions of delight. Of course, we would return.
Reservations seemed to be in order, but Mr. Hotpot does not have a website and the phone rang unanswered until after 3 p.m. The restaurant opens at 5:00, but yes, a table is still available. One of just two set in the window. Its honey-blonde woodgrain hiding a boxy metal kicking hazard below: housing for the round heating element sunk into the table-top above. Our waitress was poor at explaining how best to order, and we made some mistakes, but one visit is enough to figure it out. Next time, ordering will be simple.
To begin, this is a culinary adventure in which everyone shares while still exploring their individual tastes. A meal consists of three parts. A broth base, assorted items to add to the broth, and an assortment of condiments to personalize your experience.
A ying-yang pot allows for two different soups. We chose spicy and mushroom, but tomato is also available. To these, we should have added frozen lumps of processed meat, mushrooms, noodles, frozen dumplings, and leafy vegetables, and let it all simmer into a hearty and aromatic soup before we started to eat, but we didn’t fully grasp that concept. So we added vermicelli, enoki mushrooms, black fungus and regular noodles, which left us still with a thin, but aromatic broth.
We side-stepped the processed meat balls and went directly to the fresh meat, choosing beef and lamb served thinly sliced and raw. Pork and sole are also on the menu. The beef is presented as a pile of bacon-like strips. The lamb (the unanimous favourite at our table) comes as a neat pile of rolls. Using chopsticks to pick up a strip or roll, we submerged them into our thin soups, family-style, failing to realize that we should have ladled soup into our personal little soup cups. Placed in the vat, the meat doesn’t take long to cook, and left too long it may disintegrate into the soup. But soup in the cups does not hold its heat long, so you’ll need to eat up and replenish to continue enjoying the fresh-cooked meat.
Every adult pays $31.99 ($17.99 for children) for all you can eat. But order more than you can eat, and the leftovers will be charged to you and packaged for take-away, so order a few items to start: you can always order more. Also, the price does not include the third element: the condiments, which we passed on.
Don’t follow our example. Access to the condiment counter costs another $2.50 per person and provides a selection of about a dozen sauces, including peanut, sweet hoisin and spicy chili, to which you can add finely diced peppers and herbs. Choose your own proportions, mix and match and daub a little or a lot into your personal soup bowl. The end result should be a hearty cascade of flavours and textures.
A delightful adventure, indeed, and next time we’ll get it right.
Mr. Hotpot, 2510 Estevan Ave.
Oak Bay 778-265-8882