This is a restaurant review, one which you’d be foolish to ignore!
Having just moved back to Edinburgh from Glasgow recently we have been exploring the local area for coffee, shopping and eating options. We’re living in the West End of the city now and have been doing most of our shopping at Lidl on Dalry Road (which I have to say I’m pretty impressed with). The only problem with this arrangement is that after doing a shop – whilst hungry (an activity fraught with danger!) – we’re forced to walk home past the Xiangbala Hot Pot. After a number of these episodes I decided that enough was enough; we were going in.
The first thing you notice, after the amazing aroma which seems to transport Dalry road directly to tea-time Beijing, is the almost exclusively Chinese clientèle – students looking for the authentic taste of home perhaps? The bright orange façade is unassuming in its garishness and the interior, a mix of neon painted walls, abstract paintings and christmas decorations, is deliciously kitsch to boot. Don’t let this put you off though because This restaurant offers what is regarded to be one of the most authentic Chinese dining experiences around. The idea is: eat as much as you like for 2 hours for £15 per person and cook your own food.
If you’re looking for gloopy sweet’n’sour or greasy spring rolls this isn’t the joint for you. If, however, you want some tasty, fun and healthy Chinese grub then you’re on the right track. Xiangbala Hot Pot only does one dish but the possibilities are endless. We sit down (booking required on Fri and Sat evenings) and are given an extensive wipe clean menu and a highlighter:
From here, as you can see above, we chose starters, a few broth bases and a whole array of raw ingredients.
We started with cold braised soy sauce beef, tea leaf eggs (eggs boiled in salty tea; not much to write home about) and chilli chicken’s feet. The chicken’s feet are an acquired taste and I actually fairly enjoyed their gelatinous rubbery texture paired with the background heat of the chilli but they aren’t for everyone and I’d steer clear if you’re squeamish.
We went for a clear broth – plenty of garlic, ginger and spring onion as well as dried red Chinese dates – and a hot and spicy broth with chilli oil and a load of dried red chilli. These were brought to the table in a big split pan and placed on a hotplate in the middle of the table where it boiled and bubbled between us throughout the meal (topped up with stock by the friendly waiters as necessary):
This is where the fun begins!
The hotpot is like a big Chinese fondue and because it’s a boiling stock (as opposed to cheese, oil or chocolate) it’s actually very healthy! Our raw ingredients arrived on one massive platter and a number of smaller plates:
The majority of the platter was made up of various types of seafood including fresh crab claws and legs, razor clams, king prawns and fish balls:
There were also a number of vegetable offerings here including cauliflower, pak choi, Chinese leaf, dried fungus and wild mushrooms. We had also ordered pork and beef and these came wafer thin and also raw:
At this point we were taken over to the sauce table by our waiter. In my excitement at being allowed to mix my own sauce up using a range of ingredients (including: peanut paste, soy, sweet chilli, fresh coriander, spring onion, rice vinegar, chilli oil, sesame oil, oyster sauce, hoi sin and slightly worryingly MSG) I forgot to take a photo of the table. I did, however, manage to get a snap of my sauce before I mixed it:
As you can see, I went heavy on the peanuts, peanut paste and chilli oil to make a sort of satay style dipping sauce. I went back and made a few more over the course of the evening and they all had different qualities.
We spent the next hour or so experimenting with cooking times, dropping ingredients into the broth and forgetting they were there, getting it just right, getting it wrong, laughing and enjoying the experience.
The food is only as good as you are at cooking it and for some this is not the idea of a fun night out. If you’re a foodie (and let’s face it, you’re reading a food blog…) it almost certainly will be.
We finished up with some sweet dim sum dumplings. Steamed balls of dough filled with a sort of sweet date paste and shaped into a cute hedgehog. This came with a slice of refreshing watermelon.
The food here is good and fresh and the fun of cooking it yourself would lend itself well to a group night out. Perhaps not a first date kind of a place…
The decor isn’t exactly chic but it adds to the fun atmosphere and many of my favourite restaurants (e.g. Kampong Ah Lee Malaysian Delight) have fairly suspect interiors. The deal – the one and only option – is good value if you’re hungry, essentially encompassing three courses for £15. The house wine’s not bad and there is the option to BYOB (however, with a rather hefty £5 corkage).
I highly recommend trying Xiangbala out at least once and I bet, like me, you’ll be hooked on hot pot!