Chukoku298 Sauchiehall Street,
0141 332 8120
£ – inexpensive
££ – mid-price
£££ – expensive
££££ – very expensive
Pots: the difference
Review published on 22/10/2012 © Sunday Herald
For a while were lost and lonely in the cheap seats at the back of the restaurant. Adrift amid plain pine tables, a giant rural mural and row after row after row of fried Chinese bellybuster buffet glistening under searing spotlights. Around us are Scots heading up and down for refills. Then I catch the eye of a waitress and say the magic words of escape: Chinese fondue. Boof, whoosh, bang, suddenly were being led towards the front of the restaurant and its all follow mesirs. This waysirs. Table at the windowsirs.
Hang on. Did I say suddenlysirs? OK. I missed out the bit where the waitress is looking at me as though Im slightly deranged and going: You sure? Chinese fonduesirs? Not want buffetsirs? Once I convince the very nice, smiley girl that we know what we are getting ourselves into, its as though the tables part.
Now were the only non-Chinese in the more glamorous section of the restaurant. Weve got windows. Tables are full of little gas burners heating steaming tureens of bubbling soups while young, cool Chinese dudes lower raw fish, meat and vegetables into them to be cooked instantly. Fancy the pickled cabbage and fish soup? I ask Adio and Guerino by way of a little humour. For the second time tonight Im met with have-you-lost-it looks.
Its at this point I have to explain to two grown men brought up on their mamas pasta that tonight we are going to have to cook our tea all by ourselves. In a restaurant. From that astonishing array of raw, fresh, semi-frozen, sometimes slimy and occasionally downright strange ingredients at the counter behind us. And were going to cook it in this pot with two compartments one containing tom-yum soup and the other containing satay soup. How we chuckle. Until Guerino decides hes going back to the buffet
Tripe, whelks, mussels, hollow fish balls, squid balls, oysters, taro, mooli, pigs liver: the choice seems endless if not exactly attractive. Adio and I bodyswerve all of the above and instead follow the lead of the Chinese kids around us and pile plates with long, fat, freshwater prawns, white fish chunks, smashed crab claws, razor clams, lotus roots, pickled cabbage, paper-thin slices of still-frozen beef and lamb and packets of vermicelli noodles, and head back to the table. This is, apparently, the biggest culinary fad in China. Its called Mongolian hotpot, Chinese hotpot or Chinese fondue. Its meant to be fun. A kind of play-school, slapstick version of eating out, all dripping ladles, plunging seafood, messy plates and sudden hot, sharp, peppery tastes. Well, it is when we do it.
Do we enjoy it? Honestly? I dont think were doing it right. At first we toss everything into the tureens to cook, then fish it back out again only to remark that its all a bit bland. Not much taste from the soup. We throw in a dark chilli oil and that livens things up. Briefly. We try some satay sauce, even add a soy and salty concoction to our plates that the waitress tells us is actually made of sesame oil. Deep down we want to cook a plateful in one go then sit back to eat it, but thats not how its done. Thats not how the Chinese kids are doing it. They graze constantly, taking huge quantities of vegetables from the counter and cooking them one by one. Then they return with more seafood.
As were leaving we cant help noticing the people who were eating from their fondues when we came in are still here, with no sign of being anywhere near finished. I think thats the way to appreciate it. Was it a particularly good meal for us? Nope. But we can hardly complain, since it was us who cooked it. And it was certainly an interesting and at times fun night out.