Locale Profile: Singing Hot, Hot Pot

img_1851Intimidated. That’s how I felt when I first saw the website for LaMei Hot Pot, the new restaurant on Broadway. Their gallery photos were stunning: vivid black and red décor, sizzling broth and plates of brightly colored ingredients. But as I read through their menu items (which ranged from “corn on the cob” to “pig’s brain”), I realized I had no idea how any of this worked. I was a hot pot novice, and I was going to need some help.

That help, however, did not come from my friends. Instead, I asked a fellow novice to join me under the pretense that I was going to be “that” person and ask the staff a lot of questions. He didn’t mind, which was a good thing because I followed through with my promise and latched onto our waiter the moment he walked over and said hello.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

LaMei Hot Pot replaced the Phoenix Dragon on Federal Hill, and the first thing I noticed as I made U-turns around the establishment trying to find street parking was that they have their own parking lot. Praise the heavens! The second thing I noticed was that amid utter darkness at 6:30pm, the inside of this restaurant shone with the brightness of a summer day. If you want to woo a date at candlelight, this is not the place, but I came to understand that appropriate lighting is an asset when confronted with a pot of boiling hot broth.

The moment we walked in, I was assaulted — in the best possible way — by an aroma that nearly knocked me off my feet. If I ever want to enjoy a meal merely by smelling it, I will just stand in this doorway. Thankfully, we were seated immediately, but the restaurant filled quickly, and soon people without reservations were waiting in the corridors. The interior was identical to the pictures I’d seen online: sharp lines, bright colors, immaculate presentation. There was a long, full bar (complete with hot pot capability), red cushioned chairs and small black tables, and big booths against the back wall. We were seated near the bar and given water right away. I wondered which poor soul would take care of us, and soon he arrived: Hurst.

This young man deserves a raise. He asked if we had any questions, and I just said, “Tell us everything!” I explained this was our first time with hot pots, and we needed help.

img_1853“Oh, yes, okay,” he said, and without missing a beat, he walked us step-by-step through the menu, beginning with broth choices. He said the most popular was the half spicy, half original. “Done,” I said.

“How spicy do you want it? Mild? Hot?” he asked.

I didn’t realize we had options, so I suggested medium. In retrospect, I could have gone much hotter, but I wanted to be on the safe side.

Next came the plates of ingredients. The first suggestion he made was the vegetable platter, which came with an assortment of five vegetables, including bok choy, corn and tomatoes. “Done,” I said. Then he asked if we ate meat or seafood (both) and listed some popular choices. He said they had platters of those as well. We decided on the seafood platter because we like all things from the sea: crab, shrimp, fish, mussels, and squid.

“Should we get anything else?” I asked.

“Hmm. For two people … this is okay. But if you’d like to try something else, the mushroom or tofu are very popular.” He pointed to the menu where we could find them. They also had a mushroom platter. “It’s very nice,” he nodded.

“Done,” I said.

The seafood platter, veggie platter, mushroom platter, two bowls of sticky rice and two glasses of wine turned out to be the perfect amount for two hungry people.

The broth came promptly and was put right on the table between us. I didn’t realize the table itself had a stove, with the temperature controls on my date’s side.  I assumed the hot pot was like soup that starts out hot and slowly dies, but this could be kept at a constant boil. Shortly after, our platters arrived, and Hurst said we could add the ingredients wherever we’d like, on the spicy or the original side, although he advised using the slotted spoon to hold the seafood in the water so it didn’t overcook. (This proved particularly true for the crabsticks, which disintegrated when we forgot about them.)

Just as we were about to dig in, I remembered the sauces. Hurst pointed out the “Sauce Station,” but I didn’t have a clue what to do with them. Should I fill a ramekin with each one? Did they go in the broth or on the plate? “Um, Hurst…?”

img_1858And again, Hurst saved the day. He created two concoctions for us: the first he called the Japanese-style sauce, saying it would go well with seafood. He used a small ladle full of soy sauce and added a spoonful of vinegar, chopped garlic, scallions and chili oil. Then he made a thicker, Chinese-style sauce, better for meat, he said, but we should try it with sesame sauce, sesame oil, scallions and dry chili pepper. Finally, we ate.

Everything was superb. It was a bit of an adventure, cooking while eating, and I was too easily distracted to maintain conversation. Servers walked around the room replenishing our broth supply. I found that the Chinese sauce paired nicely with the shrimp, and the Japanese sauce paired nicely with the white fish. But both were excellent, and the mushrooms — especially the black mushrooms — were my favorite additions.

I thanked Hurst repeatedly for his help, and he was humble about his service. “I hope you liked it?” he asked as we left.

I might have been a novice, but I know good food, good flavors and good service, and this had all three. “Amazing,” I said. “I look forward to the day when I can call myself an expert.”

256 Broadway, Providence

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