Experiment with the flavors.
Aromatic broths simmering in broad silver bowls right at your table. Baskets of fresh vegetables, seafood and thin-sliced meats ready to be plunged into the broth and cooked to your personal ideal of perfection. It’s the ultimate DIY meal and as healthy as you want it to be.
That’s hot pot at Chuan Shabu. It’s a concept that allows inventiveness and up-close participation in the preparation of your meal. Though Vietnamese restaurants have offered variations on it, the hot pot concept is fairly new in Worcester, and the friendly staff at Chuan Shabu is eager to assist.
Here’s how it works: My friend and I were seated at a jet-black, glass-topped table. At the center is an induction cook-top with a very simple set of controls. Induction cooking avoids an open flame and heats metallic cookware superfast. We were provided with a laminated menu and pen to check off items for our entrée.
It starts, I suppose, with broth selection. There are a number of choices, each $3, with a “basic” version offered for free. We selected Seafood and, at the recommendation of people nearby, Tom Yum ~ a Thai-inspired, spicy and slightly sour broth.
Then, we checked off our vegetable selections: bok choy, broccoli and wood ear mushrooms. For meat, we selected Angus sirloin. It came gorgeously red and marbled, sliced thin in big, loopy rolls and ready for the plunge. From a long list of seafood, we chose fresh clams (in the shell) and shrimp dumplings. To unite all this, we also ordered a bowl of Udon noodles.
In addition to hot pot, Chuan Shabu also features a full Chinese menu. We started with one of its appetizers, Sliced Pork Belly in Mashed Garlic Sauce. Enough for sharing? Oh, yes! There were more than a dozen slices slightly less than ¼-inch thick and schmeared with sauce ~ I’d call it garlic-chili ~ and sprinkled with sesame seeds. It was served just under room temperature over salad greens.
We snagged slices of pork belly with our chopsticks and took the edge off the mildly spicy heat with bottles of Tiger Beer. Tiger is a lager from Singapore that’s really meant to be enjoyed with food; on its own, well, it’s just not that interesting. In contrast, the rest of our meal was quite fascinating.
When we finished with the appetizer course, our server set out small bowls of soy sauce and dishes of condiments for us to mix as we desired. Then, the large simmering bowl, divided down the middle and filled with our broths, was set on the table and the induction device was activated. In moments, the bowl’s contents were steaming away, and for the remainder of our meal, it emitted clouds of sumptuous vapor. The broths were rich creations that included chunks of ginseng root, jujube dates and citrus slices.
Some rudimentary knowledge of cooking helps when engaging in the hot pot. For example, it’s nice to know that razor-thin sliced beef will cook in seconds. And that overcooking it is not a good idea. Broccoli florets, on the other hand, can take five minutes or so to cook, but too long in the broth and they’ll go battleship grey. Some experimentation was required, but soon I felt reasonably proficient.
The bok choy was one of my favorites. Perfectly green and flawless, these mini-stalks of tender leaves became exceedingly delicious in either of the broths, but I really favored the Tom Yum. Mushrooms took the plunge, and we fished them out with ladles. Other than that, we managed with our chopsticks.
The clams ~ cherrystones, actually ~ took more time to open than I expected. But they were well worth the wait; they were as fresh as possible, tender and clean.
As we proceeded through our meal, we concurred that on a return trip, we really should order a bowl of noodles per diner. They simmered up tender and acquired the flavor of the broth. Plus another meat; perhaps pork. And more vegetables. Oh, yeah, and I want to experiment with different broth.
Perhaps it should have been obvious to me, but the food choices you select for simmering add their own flavors to the broth, and by the end of the meal, it was just as satisfying to relax amidst the rich aromas and enjoy spoonfuls of our own unique creation.
Chuan Shabu’s hot pot is delicious and fun. Come the colder months, all that steamy redolence should make it the most sensual place in town.
301 Park Ave., Worcester
By Bernie Whitmore