Wednesday, 14 November 2012
Restaurant: The Mongolian Hot Pot
By Boeing: 7214 miles
By Boris Bike: 2.2 miles
Mongolia is a land of vast wilderness, where Lords of horses and hordes gallop huge distances across the Steppe. While the modern era has taken a foothold in Ulaan Bataar away from the capital life has changed little since the days of Genghis Khan. It is an unspoilt destination where visitors have to make do with a kip in a Yurt rather than a comforting night’s sleep in a swanky hotel. And if they are after a tipple while watching the sun set over ‘the Land of the Blue Sky’ they’ll be offered a choice of fermented mares milk or salty tea.
So, unsurprisingly, it attracts more of the lonely planet generation than Hilton Hotel loyalty card holders. The cuisine is equally as humble, with the choice not straying far from mutton in a noodle broth. I sampled this central Asian fare when hosted by Kyrgyzstan but as I entered the red lantern littered Mongolian Hot Pot in a tarted up old pub just of Clapham Old Town I felt this would be a different, not wholly authentic experience.
The London palate has become quite sophisticated in recent times as its credentials as a global food capital have become established. So with sky high rents and an embarrassment of choice it can be difficult for humble cuisines to compete. Unless of course you have a gimmick. I always thought the Hot Pot originated in Lancashire but it seems Mongolia’s rival claim has the backing of the experts. But it has since been enthusiastically adopted in the Szechuan region of neighbouring China. The gimmick, for those uninitiated, is that cook your own food, not in the kitchen but at the comfort of your own table.
This is a theme across Asia and my Korean meal was of course lovingly prepared by, well by myself. I was impressed and considered leaving myself a tip. Mongolia has been hijacked to give it an exotic ring and to make this dining option distinct from the plethora of Chinese restaurants that litter the capital.
Below red lantern level the restaurant was less than sumptuous. Dominating the room was a buffet bar, a cursory inspection of which saw me ask my companions in wide eyed surprise “Are they frankfurters?”. The ingredients rode fast and loose with notions of authenticity. Having paid our ‘eat as much as you can’ tariff our hotplate was fired into life and we set off on a reconnaissance trip to the buffet bar. This featured beef, chicken pork, fish, crab sticks, Tofu and many and varied vegetables, precious few of which could take root in the Steppe.
I was an amateur, and it showed. I placed some sliced carrots on the sizzling surface only to be advised that I may as well come back tomorrow when it may be half cooked. At a conservative estimate 80% of the ingredients simply could not be cooked. This left me no option but to focus on frantically flipping bits of wafer thin pork and beef before dousing it in a satay sauce and scoffing it down before working on the next batch.
The Tofu and mushrooms just about joined the party but even so it was hardly a balanced meal. I looked around to see that most people had opted for a Hot Pot and concluded that this was probably a better option.
Though the DIY format lends itself to making a meal a social occasion, except of course a fellow diner encroaches on your quadrant of the hot plate, it is all a little stressful. And while you slave over a hot stove the waiters swan around delivering overpriced European lager and occasionally replenishing the frankfurter stock. As a business model it is genius. There is no way anyone could ever cook their way through even a third of the value of the set cost and yet because it is unlimited they feel they’ve got a bargain.
I’m more than happy to cook my own meal if it is suckling pig beginning to blister but unless the experience is memorable the format doesn’t convince. Afterall, isn’t one of the points of dining out that you are relieved of certain chores? I half expected to be shown to a sink and told I could replenish my jay cloth as many times as I liked. But perhaps my attitude is very British, very cynical. Afterall, this meal is quite literally what you make of it and there is a certain pleasure to a constant sizzle at your table. Had the restaurant marketed itself as a Mongolian Raw Buffet I would be happier that I had been forewarned. I would also undoubtedly have been eating alone, with an unencumbered path to the buffet.
I think I’d have preferred access to an open fire, an unlimited supply of wooden skewers and a huge tank full of marshmallows. Not very Mongolian you may think, but then I’m not sure that matters. At least it doesn’t seem to.