Crown Hotpot: Round The Table Happiness

Jac Williamson and friends visit a Chinese restaurant with a surprising twist.

The idea of going out to eat somewhere where you have to cook your own food isn’t one that necessarily appeals. I enjoy cooking, but going out for dinner usually means handing over the reins to someone else, someone who knows what they are doing and, crucially, is better at it than I am. But cooking your own dinner is, essentially, the proposition at Crown Hotpot, a restaurant that sits above an East Asian supermarket opposite Leeds University’s Parkinson Building – and specialises in Sichuan hotpot.

Photograph by Gemma Bridge

To the uninitiated, Sichuan hotpot could sound like a cross-cultural adventure. From the name alone you might be forgiven for expecting a Sichuan spiced potato-topped Lancashire stew that, now I’ve described, sounds like it could be sensational, but in reality it’s a typically Sichuanese dish of a hot broth or soup in which raw ingredients are cooked and eaten at the table.

It is a dish best eaten communally, ideally with friends, ideally with very good friends, at least if you, like me, are incapable of maintaining your dignity when eating anything in the slightest bit messy. There were others in Crown Hotpot who were managing it with clean shirt fronts, but by the time the bill came ours was a table spattered red and greasy, sitting around it five friends grinning like maniacs and sweating liberally, having ingested everything put in front of us, despite being repeatedly advised by the concerned-looking waitstaff that we might want to slow down. But we’re skipping to the end here, and this was an experience well worth savouring.

Firstly, it doesn’t feel like an exaggeration to say that on our visit, the staff at Crown Hotpot seem more intent on us having a good time than we are ourselves. For many in our group, this is a first experience of Sichuan hotpot and our hands are figuratively, and in one instance literally, held throughout our experience. It’s rare in life that you can feel certain you are doing the right thing, but Crown Hotpot simply will not let you make a mistake – like a parent hovering over a toddler’s first bike ride, the staff were always just over our shoulder, ready to keep us on the right course. 

When it comes to the hotpot, the soup base is all important; it’s what you cook everything in, and what imparts most of the flavour to the items you order that arrive, for the most part, raw and unseasoned. The menu offers seven options, including tom yum, ox-tail tomato, and one option delightfully entirely in Chinese that will remain forever a mystery. We choose two from the list: the Sichuan spice pot and the pork bone clear soup; one spicy and fragrant, one savoury and salty. We are advised to choose the mildest possible spice level for the Sichuan spice pot and we are later thankful for the advice; the “mild” option has our heads generously sweating, our lips wonderfully numb and our spirits thoroughly enlivened.

The (much appreciated) paternalism of the staff continues as we are shown to the dip station, where we are told we can create our own dipping sauce, in which we can dunk the ingredients retrieved from their stint in the broth, combining sauces such as sesame, soy and chili and adding garlic, peanuts and spring onions. Once again, the freedom we are given is heavily policed; akin to that of a bowling ball being slung by a toddler down an alley that has the barriers up. Two of our number are merrily guided back to the dip station, by the hand, with an offer to help re-do the apparent mess they had made of filling their bowls. The ingredients arrive at the table raw, ready to be cooked in and take on the flavour of, the broth. There’s something thrilling about seeing raw ingredients at your table in a restaurant, a sense of peeking behind the curtain or being let in on a secret, the rules of engagement temporarily adjusted for the evening. The menu describing what you can order to dunk and cook in your broth is extensive, and here is where we are given free rein to have a bit of adventure.
A plate of black fungus has the look of a pile of ears cut from centuries-old peat-bog bodies, we are brought a plate of raw ox-tongue that wouldn’t look out of place in a surgical discard bin (delicious after being given a long bath in the Sichuan spice broth), raw squid sliced gossamer thin and artfully arranged, and of course the metre-long wooden board of rolled raw beef. How could anybody see “a metre of beef” on a menu and not experience an overwhelming and profound need to order it?

There’s a theatre to all of this that I love and that makes for a perfect communal eating experience. Within minutes of the soups arriving and being heated up on the inset heating element in the middle of the table, we are laughing and dunking and sploshing, and importantly eating and enjoying and making appreciative noises. I could describe how everything tasted when it came out of its ritual bath in the bowl in the centre of the table. I could describe how the squid curled and took on the light fragrance and heavy spice of the Sichuan broth before its second bath in my personal bowl of sesame, soy, garlic and chilli.  But I think a more accurate representation of how much we enjoyed our evening at Crown Hotpot can be found by returning to the scene I described near the outset. Five friends sitting around a remarkably messy table, my new cream trousers (I don’t know what I was thinking) boasting an even newer fire engine red stain, all of us absolutely beaming with happiness.

There are times when we all need our freedom, and there are times when it is wise to put your trust in those who know better than you and who have your best interests at heart. Put your faith in the people at Crown Hotpot and they will repay it a thousand times over.

Crown Hotpot is open Monday to Sunday 12 noon until 10 p.m. Find out more here.

Unless otherwise stated, images are by Jac Williamson. Main image by Gemma Bridge.

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