At Haymarket’s newest restaurant, diners are greeted at the door by two robotic staff members. That isn’t an criticism: they are actually robots. They come bearing plates of fruit and mints. If You Are The One – the Chinese dating show – is broadcast from screens afixed to their torsos because, why not? Welcome to Spice World: Sydney’s huge new hotpot joint.
The latest of more than 500 international stores, Spice World in Chinatown is the brand’s first Australian outlet and has a sprawling and immaculate labyrinthine interior. Dragon-printed leather chairs seat 270 diners at gold-rimmed marble tables. There are arcade games, jenga sets and a steam machine to get the smell of hotpot out of your clothes. A disorienting number of mirrors line the ceiling and 10 private dining rooms hide behind futuristic stained-glass walls.
“Hotpot is always best shared,” says co-owner Nick Liu, who spent the past 10 years at the helm of World Square’s Din Tai Fung. The dish has come a long way from its origins on the merchant ships of Chengdu, where sailors would salvage scraps of meat and vegetable to cook in communal pots. Although the premise of cooking ingredients yourself at the table remains, the format is less utilatarian; at Spice World the Wagyu beef comes draped across Barbie dolls, shrimp comes stuffed into bamboo shoots, and Hello Kitty-shaped stock cubes are melted into the broth – a morbid but delicious evolution.
Robots and sacrificial dolls aside, Liu is most excited about the food. “The secret to a good hotpot begins with a proper soup base,” he says. Thai tom yum or wild mushroom are perfect places to begin for the cautious, but Spice World’s most popular base is the traditional spicy soup: a broth of pork, beef and chicken bones seasoned with star anise, fennel seeds, dried peppers and Szechuan peppercorns. It’s a complex concoction that’s easy to screw up, but Liu reckons Spice World is serving one of the best.
This soup is the foundation upon which diners can add as many raw sides as they like. According to Liu it’s best to begin with meats, work your way through the vegetables and finish with noodles. This way there’s a mutual exchange of flavour whereby the soup seasons the sides and the sides add depth to the soup. Custom dipping sauces are crucial to the experience and are made at the sauce bar from ingredients such as fermented tofu and peanut butter.
Between the more popular Wagyu and premium lamb options, sides of ox gizzard and duck-blood jelly are as delightful as they are unusual. There is lotus root, potato slices and bamboo fungus for the greens. Once they’re cooked, a quick baste in the dipping sauce and you’re good to go. Take the edge off with shots of Jing Xiao Bai, a Chinese white wine similar to soju or raki.
Liu thinks hotpot is about to have its moment in Sydney. “There’s always been Japanese and Korean barbeque in Sydney, but never a proper Chinese hotpot option. People love this style of dining but it’s just exploded since we opened up. It seems like 2018 is the year of the hotpot.”
405 Sussex Street, Haymarket
(02) 9211 1515
Mon to Fri 11.30am–2.30, 5.30–10pm