Mixing hot pot with sashimi (not in the same bowl) may not be to everyone’s taste but Nick rather likes the interaction and fun of it all.
Charco Charco Hot Pot is the newest restaurant from Leo Jin, one of the UK’s leading suppliers of Asian food, who also have a restaurant in Holborn where the lens is focused more on Japanese.
Here though it’s a mix of Chinese Hot Pot, Sashimi and Sushi Maki, and as soon as you walk into what is a very large space, with even more seating beyond, you can’t help but spot the statement seafood bar.
The main room is high-ceilinged and very modern in a kind of Dubai way, blues and reds and sexy lighting. Tables are suitable for landing helicopters on, and there’s a reason for that – each one has a built-in big hot pot. It’s safely covered up for your first dishes, or you might fall in, but revealed in all its bubbling glory for the main event.
Faced with a rather bewildering choice of dishes, we are happy to take on a set menu. The sweet waiter, concerned for our Western palates, asks us how much heat we can take. I am as gung ho as a post pub curry house patron demanding vindaloo, ‘Bring it on!’ I cry, but he isn’t convinced, ‘I’ll make it medium’, he says, ‘you can always add in heat, but you can’t take it out.’ Wise words.
We fall on chicken with sichuan pepper, served with stock and its skin and it’s poached and lukewarm, as is the style. The pepper is brilliantly fresh, indeed there is even a sprig of berries on the plate, and the familiar Sichuan numbness is pronounced. ‘I can’t feel my tongue anymore,’ says S wonderingly. The citrus flavour of the pepper is perfect with the chicken.
It’s paired with Emei bamboo shoots which look vaguely like a shredded squid. I’ve never had these before and they are crunchy and sweet with a hint of asparagus. They grow in Sichuan province, so naturally there’s more Sichuan pepper served with them, the numbness grows, and it is addictive.
Two large oysters on a bed of shaved ice appear. Each is dressed with chopped uni, a little sprinkle of caviar, ikura (red caviar), ponzu sauce and a hint of jalapeno. Uni is sea urchin, buttery and creamy, and a real delicacy. You can’t nibble a dish like this, just check the oyster is freed from its shell and then tip it into your mouth in one go. A couple of chews to release the flavour and swallow. We both smile, it’s a taste experience, a taste bomb.
Scallop carpaccio with sauce, tomato, micro herbs and Tobiko black caviar is up next. The caviar is actually flying fish roe, tinted from its natural orange to black by using squid ink. I think scallops do really need the kiss of a very hot pan to make them sing, but this dish does let you appreciate their subtleness.
Tuna tartare with even more caviar, it really is like being in Dubai, avocado and yuzu is not the best tuna tartare I’ve ever had but it is a decent dish and generous.
Ah but the Volcano Roll with grilled eel is a stunner, the sauce is creamy and umami rich, It looks great on the plate, but it’s a messy eat. No matter, it’s still a crackingly good dish even as we mop ourselves down after.
So the hot pot. The lid is taken off to reveal a cauldron in which are found rabbit components (we wimpishly swerved the option of frogs’ legs) and lots of dried red chillies and herbs and spices and other things too numerous to identify, but I do detect star anise and cinnamon amongst them. There is also a central ring of separate, non spicy, aromatic stock with lots of herbs.
The idea is that into either of the stocks you lower your main ingredients – thinly sliced lamb, pieces of panga fish, prawn balls, various root vegetables – to cook. You don’t need to be exact on timing, almost everything cooks in a few minutes.
The rabbit, despite being a minefield of bones, is delicious. We fish out pieces of Thumper and then go for those individual elements of lamb etc. Putting them into the pot is easy, finding them again is rather hard.
Dedicated work with extra long chopsticks and a slotted spoon gets them fished out after a bit. Some things that we put in though are never seen again, lost forever amongst all the spices in the dark red gorgeous stock.
The only thing I miss is some rice,I feel the need to get a bit more of that stock into me, but don’t want to drink it out of the pot. Still, as we are pretty full, even though some of the ingredients are still waiting to take their dip in the bath, rice would perhaps have done us in.
The spice is nice, we’re definitely blowing our noses a lot, but our heads aren’t being blown off. Well done our waiter, medium hot was a good choice.
I have the dessert for the sake of it, but in fact Glutinous Rice Cake with Brown Sugar is not at all nice or interesting and I can’t manage more than a bite. Still, whoever went into a Chinese restaurant eager for desserts?
Charco Charco Hot Pot takes a traditional style of eating out of the usual places where non – Chinese might feel a little out of their comfort zone, and Westernises the event with comprehensible menus, cheerful expert advice and a ton of great flavours. Do dive in.
60 St Martin’s Ln, London WC2N 4JS