HaiDiLao Hotpot – Shanghai, China

HaiDiLao Hotpot – a chain often talked about as you can get manicures, massages and play board games while you wait for a table. Sadly we got a table straight away…the only time in my life where I will say that was a shame!

We ventured to the HaiDiLao branch near Tianzifang as we planned to do some shopping there (cool place, but we only walked away with socks. Cheap socks at that though). It took us quite a few tries of asking locals to find it (it’s tucked away in a corner mall up a few floors). Ascending the escalator to the restaurant, we really didn’t know what to think. We were hotpot newbies – though I thought I knew the general jist of it, there was so much to learn…

Seated at our table, the first thing to choose from the vast paper (and iPad) menu was the soup base. Rather foolheartedly, I chose Szechuan (spicy), and the safer mushroom, dividing our hot pot into two. In hindsight we probably should have split our hotpot into three or four soup base options as they were quite large basins (insider tip right there). We then chose our meats and veges – spinach (turned out to be lettuce), quail egg (the largest pile you’ll ever see for this price in your life), lotus root, mushrooms, coriander and wagyu beef. I’d recommend getting a solely oil hotpot sector just to fry the lotus root to a beautiful crisp. Oh, some noodles too (more about those later). You then attack the spices and sauces bar and pick accompaniments for your hotpot experience.

And what an experience it was. Quickly we were presented with aprons and told we must wear them – this was wise it turned out, with all the splatters and splashes of hot red goo that went everywhere. We were even given hairties – maybe a step too far, I mean I’m the one eating this – it’s not a commercial kitchen.

On we plunged into the murky pots – plunking everything and anything into the broth and wire baskets submerged in the liquid. I eagerly tasted what I had cooked in the Szechuan mix…and tasted some more…and some more…then it hit. Deathly, brain searing spice. I sat there on the verge of vomiting for a good ten minutes. I thought I had spice down pat – I eagerly eat the chilis to impress friends with my iron tastebuds – but this mix had me beat. Feeling one bite from death, I had to take a timeout to evaluate my life and whether it was worth ending it for a culinary experience. This is for the pros. The PROS I tell you. Wow. Seeing my discomfort, an attendant rushed to our table and took over the process for us, mixing up sauces, dunking foods and generally giving us the low down on how to hotpot. From this point on, we avoided the Szechuan and things gradually improved. We also decided to dump a bunch of garlic, herbs and the like into our mushroom broth and hey, we were on to a winner. Did you know lettuce in hotpot is freaking delicious? And it’s gotta be low calorie too. Bonus.

The meat however. Our wagyu beef, delicately sliced and presented on a giant bowl of ice, tasted well, let’s just say ‘funny’. I’m now blaming this meat on the ‘shanghai belly’ I arrived home with. Something just didn’t taste right about this meat. Unless you have an iron stomach, maybe play it on the safe side and go with veges and noodles.

Speaking of noodles, when you order these at HaiDiLao (and we had to chase ours up), they come with a rather amazing display. What I affectionately like to call the ‘Noodleman Dance’ soon appears at your table. Dinner and a show, how much better does it get? ‘Noodleman’ will come to your table and hand pull the noodles while he does a rather acrobatic dance show. You can see the regulars are well over this display, but to us it was a spectacle of wonder and delight. And you get to eat the results! Rather thick, gummy noodles, but delicious nonetheless. In fact we wanted more!

We washed it down with a very cheap bottle of red (that’s about what’s on offer here), and it was about what we expected. The very definition of ‘plonk’. But this is a cheap good time meal, and…when in Rome right?

Go to HaiDiLao with an adventurous spirit and an iron stomach. Certainly an oh-so-Shanghai experience you can’t miss. Just have fun and roll with it.

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