One of the many casualties of our times, the popularity of hotpot has sure taken a beating owing to COVID; any pleasant, social, sharing activity is just not the done thing. And so, with the receding levels of doom, it is with much pleasure that we revisited Sichuan Lab in Wanchai to try their relaunched hotpot menu. Chef Wong is always looking to balance the traditional and contemporary and has expanded the restaurant’s hotpot offerings, which now include a focus on drunken items as well as a new soup base.
Hotpot is quite a busy exercise. Given any free time, you should be preparing your personal dipping bowl using the 12 condiment jars (which include the “world’s best” pepper from Kampot in Cambodia, various chilli options and some fresh herbs), the delicious house-made soy sauce and the chilli, shrimp and sesame oils. The only complaint here is that table space starts to become an issue.
We followed an insider tip and ordered the sliced local pork with garlic soy ($68) to start, and we recommend you do the same. It’s worth keeping the plate aside (if you can find room on the table) after you’ve finished this dish of locally raised Ibérico pork to see if you can replicate the sweet, garlicky sauce for your hotpot.
Before the main event, each hotpot diner will receive two non-alcoholic concoctions to get started. The lychee oolong is spiked with a potent chilli powder, and we could feel it warming more than just our palate. In contrast, the lighter shot is a refreshing peach jasmine.
When ordering the hotpot base, we had a dilemma. We could either choose the new, Instagrammable soup base or split the pot and order our old favourites. Two seemed better than one, so we went with the double flavours ($248) – choosing a medium-level Sichuan spicy base split with a classic mandarin fish with pickled vegetables. Of the two, we preferred the fragrant fish base, especially when we added a Sichuan peppercorn or two from the other side. It was a little spicy and salty, but balanced by the sour, pickled Chinese greens.
Looking back, it is with some regret that we didn’t order the new hotpot base – the 33 spice and chicken hotpot ($298 for ½ chicken or $398 for whole chicken) – which let’s you choose a cognac, rum or Chinese wine base to accompany your braised chicken that is then doused in dramatic flames. For herbs and spices bragging rights, Colonel Sanders has nothing on this dish.
Once the hotpot base is decided, you need to order your preferred extras. For two people, we were recommended to choose four or five additional items. We ordered five, and it was more than enough. The deluxe beef platter ($488) is a good choice, containing four different types of quality beef (Kagoshima A5 Wagyu, marbled beef, hand-cut beef and local beef chuck) and is enough for 3–4 people to try each variety.
The mixed mushrooms in tofu pouches ($48 for 4), also known as lucky bags (福袋), are stuffed full of mushroom and chive, and they take some time to fully heat through. Perfect for soaking up the soup and sauce, these are a hotpot must-order. They are low-maintenance too – one of the few items we didn’t lose in the hotpot whilst cooking.
New to the Sichuan Lab hotpot line-up are four drunken items. We ordered what turned out to look disconcertingly like a meat martini – the drunken beef chuck ($98) – which is presented like a rose in a large martini glass. We’re not 100% sold on this look, and in this case, we preferred the non-drunken version of beef chuck, but much of this is personal preference.
We ordered an extra serving of osmanthus fish fillet ($148), without realising one comes with the fish soup base. Quick and easy to cook, we like that it’s served with Chinese cabbage under the fish for an additional vegetable fix. Speaking of veg, the seasonal vegetable basket ($128) is huge! If you have some time to relax, definitely order it to enjoy a leisurely cooking and eating session whilst getting in your greens.
Here’s a bonus for craft beer lovers – the restaurant has two taps of local craft beer. You can choose from a H.K. Lovecraft King in Yellow, a Helles lager, or their smoky Space Rock Rauchbier, and these are both excellent hotpot choices. Having a local beer on tap is more risky for a restaurant than the usual macro beer, and we are happy to see and support it.
We left Sichuan Lab full and happy – the staff were exceptionally knowledgeable about each of the (very many) ingredients we consumed, the hotpot soups were flavourful and the ingredients fresh – but we nevertheless felt a tinge of remorse. There was an all-you-can-eat dim sum lunch deal ($168/person) being enjoyed by other diners at the time. Then there’s the new hotpot base and the hundreds of other options we didn’t get to try – there are just so many choices. It might take some time to adjust to this vibrant, social way of eating again, which feels intense right now.
If you’re ready for hotpot, you can enjoy it at Sichuan Lab every day during lunchtime until 3:30pm and for dinner starting from 6pm. The restaurant will stay open daily until 10 or 11pm, depending on the regulations at the time. Time to get social!
28 Tai Wo Street, Wanchai, 9821 1066 (WhatsApp)
This write-up is based on a complimentary media tasting provided in exchange for an honest review and no monetary compensation. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s.