1. MING TANG JIU GONG GE HOTPOT
#01-02 Bugis Cube, 470 North Bridge Rd, S188735. Tel: 6338-3405. Open daily 11.30am-midnight. Last orders at 11pm. Business as usual during CNY period.
THE HOTPOT: Seafood ‘Da Ka’ Set (‘big shot’ in Chinese slang; see main pic), $118 for two pax. We think this generous set actually feeds four pax — unless you and your makan partner eat like sumo wrestlers. The seafood arrives prettily arranged in a massive metal pan (unlike regular hotpots which come in a, well, pot). We were also given two fancy-looking brass bowls to throw unwanted scraps and shells, small plates, plastic gloves and a box of tissues. All for some heavy-duty gorging. The Chinese-owned restaurant opened two years ago opposite Bugis Junction.
THE SOUP: There are two choices of soup: a light seafood-infused broth and chilli oil-spiked mala. We choose the former. The friendly staff tells us that the broth comprises water boiled with crustaceans till it turns cloudy. And liberal dashes of MSG too, we think. They had probably used too much water to boil the seafood, which is why the soup is pretty bland, with just a hint of oceanic sweetness and an artificial brininess to it. The seafood arrives pre-boiled, good news for impatient, hangry folks. The broth only fills up about a quarter of the steamboat’s large, shallow metal pan, which means you don’t have to swirl your chopsticks around in the murky soup for your morsels like you’re fishing for treasure.
THE INGREDIENTS: The set comes with a whopping seven types of seafood already luxuriating inside the broth: half a dozen scallops, a whole medium spiny lobster from Australia, 10 “baby lobsters”, three midsized Sri Lankan mud crabs, tiger prawns, lala clams and razor clams. There’s also corn on the cob, bamboo shoot, black fungus, Chinese spinach, bean curd skin and glass noodles. There are 18 types of condiments from the condiment station to choose from, like sesame sauce and shallot-loaded Lao Gan Ma Chilli Sauce (which means ‘Old Godmother’ in mandarin and is a condiment brand popular in China.)
TASTE: Pros of this hotpot: there is plenty of food to go around, and the huge hotpot itself is extremely photogenic. Cons: The seafood is not the freshest we’ve tasted, which makes this deal more about quantity than quality. We think pre-boiling all the shellfish here for customers is a bad move, as it easily causes over cooking if you let it soak in the scalding liquid for a little too long. Since there were only two of us eating, we couldn’t quite fish out all that food quickly enough. Maybe that’s why the flesh on our lobster and crab are tough. Also, the prawn-sized baby lobsters are more decorative as they only have a sliver of sweet, springy meat in their tails. Meanwhile, the scallops, attractively topped with glass noodles and chillies, are sadly dry. The fresh, tender clams and prawns are the best things in this big, boiling bath. Oh, and skip the sesame sauce, ’cos it tastes like stale oil.
VERDICT: **1/2 Go for this if you have a large, unfussy clan to feed, or want an Instagram-worthy snapshot. Otherwise, the pre-cooked seafood is bland, and can get rubbery if you don't scoop it out of the pot fast enough. $$ - $$$
#01-14/16 Crown Centre, 557 Bukit Timah Rd. S269694. Open daily. Weekdays 6pm–11pm; weekends noon – 3pm & 6pm – 11pm. Last orders 2.30pm & 10pm. Open during CNY (Jan 28-30) noon – 3pm; 5pm – 11pm.
THE HOTPOT: Uni Hotpot, $86.90 per pax; minimum two people. This luxe offering was first served in Torikin’s headquarters in Fukuoka, Kyushu. While the specialty at this Japanese eatery is an elegant chicken collagen hotpot, this new dish is undeniably sexier. We were curious how sea urchin — usually best eaten raw —would fare cooked in soup. This hotpot features a light uni-steeped broth, plus a platter of assorted seafood and more fresh uni to cook in the clay pot.
THE SOUP: Faintly orange dashi flavoured with kelp, bonito flakes, mirin, shoyu and just a hint of what the waitress says is sea urchin from Kyushu (it probably melted down in the steaming pool). She ladles out a small cupful for us to savour. The broth is saltier than we expect, thanks to the shoyu. But it’s still pretty yummy, with a slightly sweet, creamy back note from the uni.
THE INGREDIENTS: Three large tongues of yellowish Canadian sea urchin (30 grams per pax) are propped amid neatly sliced sashimi-grade salmon, yellow tail, tuna, two prawns, a scallop, tofu, mushrooms and Japanese greens.
TASTE: Our young waitress cooks our seafood with finesse. Using chopsticks, she swishes each slice of fish around briefly in the bubbling pot shabu-shabu style so it is still pink in the middle and meltingly soft. She also adds the uni in three batches. And each time she does so, the soup grows richer, with deeper floral notes. To our surprise, the firmer-than-usual Canadian sea urchin, which tastes better than it looks, does not completely melt down in the soup. Instead, it reduces to a spongy, fishcake-like lump that is neither unpleasant nor particularly delish, since all its flavour has seeped into the soup. The best part of the meal comes at the end, after we eat three modest rounds of seafood: uni porridge. The remaining concentrated stock is plopped with a final batch of fresh uni, and Akitakomachi rice from Akita Prefecture. It is then simmered gently and finished off with a stream of beaten egg, spring onions and seaweed strips. The chewy grains and clouds of fluffy egg soak up the briny, creamy lushness of the unimbued broth gorgeously.
VERDICT: ***1/2 This is one decadent, umami hotpot. Worth a try, but be warned you don’t get a lot for the price — uni doesn’t come cheap. You’ll probably have to load up on extra side dishes if you’re ravenous. $$$
#02-324 Market Square @ Downtown East, E! Ave, 1 Pasir Ris Close, S519599. Tel: 6386-8562.Open daily 11.30am-10pm. Last orders at 9.30pm. Open 11.30am-3pm CNY Eve. Closed Jan 28 and 29.
THE HOTPOT: Korean Army Stew Hotpot, from $13.90 per person, averaging about $30 (minimum two pax). What exactly is army stew? The dish was created after the Korean War, when hungry Koreans smuggled leftover food from American military bases, mostly processed stuff like Spam, sausages and cheese, and added them to traditional spicy Korean soups. It’s commonly served hotpot style, like it is at this eatery. Mukshidonna is a franchise from a popular restaurant chain in Seoul. It specialises in this dish, served with tteokbokki (Korean rice cakes), and opened in the new food enclave of Downtown East last November.
THE SOUP: The piquant soup base is prepared by adding a secret red pepper paste formula imported from the restaurant chain in Seoul to water, and cooked in the kitchen upon order before being brought to a boil on the tabletop gas stove. The owners decline to reveal exactly what spices go into the pepper paste.
THE INGREDIENTS: You get to customise your hotpot by first picking a main ingredient such as bulgogi beef, mussels, sausages or cheese ($13.90 per portion). Next, you choose add-on goodies like ramyeon (instant noodles), vegetable dumplings, eggs, fishcake and ham ($3 per portion). The ingredients are mostly ordered from Korean suppliers in Singapore.
TASTE: We’ve tried the hotpot at a Mukshidonna branch in Seoul, after enduring a 30-minute wait due to the long line of tourists there. We think the stew at this Singaporean outpost tastes as good as the original. Best bit: there wasn’t a queue during our visit. Singaporean co-owners Eileen Teo, 26, and Hoo Chong Yong, 29, learnt the ropes from the Mukshidonna head chef in Seoul when they worked there for a week before opening the franchise here. The soup is spicy, sweet and savoury, and boasts a thicker consistency compared to typical army stews. The ingredients are fresh, and go well with the lip-smacking broth, especially the tender bulgogi, slices of shin beef marinated in soy sauce and sugar. We like the chewy rice cakes too. Pick the mozzerella cheese as one of the add-on ingredients. It lends body to the soup as it melts, giving it a nice gooey texture. And definitely order the Fried Rice with Cheese ($7). The grains are stir-fried by a server in our hotpot after we’re nearly done with our stew. The rice drinks up what’s left of the soup, and is then fried to a smoky, slightly burnt finish. Delicious.
VERDICT: ***1/2 Affordable, flavourful army stew hotpot which stands out from the usual ones with its more ‘premium’ ingredients such as fresh mussels and bulgogi beef — most versions in Singapore serve only the cheaper stuff like Spam. $