x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Pot, stock and bubble

Restaurant review A diamond in the rough, Qian Zhou Hotpot simmers up some spicy stews at the back of an old cinema.

Diners can create their own condiments at the sauce buffet at Qian Zhou Hotpot.
Diners can create their own condiments at the sauce buffet at Qian Zhou Hotpot.

Qian Zhou Hotpot Shop No. 9 National Cinema Building Al Najdha Street Abu Dhabi Tel: 02 674 7677 Price for two: Dh150-200

It was like a scene from a 1970s New York City gang flick. At the back of a shabby old cinema, we found ourselves in a deserted concrete doorway with two rickety escalators trundling up and down. As we ascended, we heard the distinctive clack of cue on ball and echoing groans of frustration from the nearby pool hall on the first floor. The light got dimmer as we advanced deeper into the building, and we turned a few bare-walled corners, half-expecting a mob of baseball bat-wielding hoods to leap out. It was just as well that they didn't, because all I was in the mood for tackling at that moment was a sizeable Chinese feast.

Qian Zhou's modest red lanterns soon homed into view. It's not that this is a no-frills restaurant. Qian Zhou has frills. It's just that its frills are no-frills, if you see what I mean. The lanterns, the decor, the tableware is at the crouching end of low-key. In fact the most ostentatious aspect of this restaurant is the well-stocked sauce buffet, where you can make your own condiments from a dazzling array of fresh ingredients. But more about that later.

First let me explain how a traditional Chinese hotpot restaurant works. You sit down with a carbon-sheet menu and tick off the items you'd like to eat. The hotpot itself contains a spiced stock of your choice (usually fish or beef, mild or spicy, or both in a divided pot). It is brought to your table, plugged in and left to heat up. When the stock begins to simmer it's time to add your raw ingredients, which you cook yourself at the table. It's all very hands on, which means you get to decide exactly what goes into the hotpot, and exactly how long it's cooked for. In other words, you get out of it whatever you're adventurous enough to put in.

I say adventurous, because there are items on the menu, such as black fungus, that are likely to be unfamiliar to most. But when our yin-yang shaped bowl of mild and spicy beef stock began bubbling away like a hot spring of roiling ginger, garlic and chilli peppers, we began adding a rather more conservative selection of ingredients to the mix. First to go in were the beef balls, succulent globes of minced meat and spices that absorbed the tasty stock until they gushed with moisture. Then we added green Chinese cabbage leaves, dried mushrooms, tofu, fresh coriander and silk-thin slices of pink lamb that quickly puckered into tender brown rosettes of meat. From the mild side of the hotpot, everything that emerged acquired gentle hints of garlic and ginger. Everything from the spicy side bludgeoned the palate with a chilli-laden smack as powerful as anything a baseball bat-wielding hood could deliver.

We used a ladle to spoon the stock into little bowls and ate it like soup; then we used a perforated ladle to catch and dispatch softened cabbage, beef balls and mushrooms into bowls of plain rice. But the rice ensemble wasn't complete without lashings of the self-made condiment from the sauce buffet, cheerfully aided by our helpful waiter. We mixed sesame oil, fermented bean curd, sweet chilli sauce, chopped chillies, spring onion and coriander into a sweet and sour concoction that smothered every mouthful. We got so carried away that by the end it was less of a hotpot, and more of a hotchpotch of meat, vegetables, garlic and inflated bulbs of chilli - gloriously messy fun.

Only a refreshing pot of green tea could defuse the sparkling chilli bombs that remained in our mouths, but we remained invigorated and exhilarated. We left Qian Zhou feeling like we'd uncovered a real diamond in the rough - in a concrete hallway at the back of an old cinema, where the pool balls clack, the jeers echo and the hotpots roil and bubble. @Email:jbrennan@thenational.ae