Some people follow the courteous rule, if you can't say something nice, don't say nothing at all.
I am not one of those people.
I did not enjoy eating at Hot Pot & Asian Grill restaurant, 4038 Talmadge Rd. This restaurant recently sprang up on the busy Talmadge Road strip just outside Franklin Park Mall. It brings the communal hot pot way of eating, popular in China, to Toledo. The concept is do-it-yourself cooking, individually dunking raw foods in a bubbling cauldron of spiced broth. Cooked foods are then dipped in sauces and shared with others while enjoying conversation.
What was it that I didn't like? Was it the odd stares or blank expressions I received from our waitress when I asked questions like "What spice is in this?" or "So this is not eaten like a soup? You cook the foods individually?"
MENU: Hot Pot & Asian Grill
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Often the response to my questions were "I don't understand." Precisely, my dear. It was never clearly explained what hot pot cooking was nor how long foods, from raw meat and fish to vegetables, are supposed to cook for. A guide indicated general cooking times for ingredients, but then our waitress told us to cook some vegetable items for five minutes, contrary to the guide.
The effort put forth in cooking my own food did not reap the tasty benefits I expected. My tummy was left unsatisfied after eating dinner. And I was not looking forward to returning for lunch.
We started dinner with an exuberant bowl of Hot & Spicy Crayfish ($15.50), which was was lip-smacking good, followed by deep-fried beef dumplings ($5), and beef rolled in a fluffy crepe ($4.50).
The hot pot can be ordered with ingredients à la carte, or in combinations. I chose the seafood combination meal ($11.50). In my very own Szechuan Spicy Pot ($2.50) I cooked Asian sausage, baby bok choy, shiitake mushrooms, mussels, and udon noodles. After fishing for my pinky-sized sausage and mussels in the swirling broth, I dipped each in the sesame sauce. The chili-pepper laced brew did not impart any new flavors to the ingredients.
Thankfully, some prepared foods are on the menu. The Sizzling Lamb ($11.50) mixed tender medallions of lamb with bright orange carrots, crunchy broccoli, and a light brown sauce. From the Fire Pot menu I chose the Pork Intestine ($13.50). The intestine, crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside, was drenched in powerful flavors. The chef said it was stir fried in a homemade secret sauce that used more than 40 herbs and ingredients.
Dessert was limited to ice cream. The green tea and mango ice cream ($3.50) were true to their names.
For lunch we returned and my companion was overwhelmed with the hot pot concept and the endless food choices to cook in the variety of broths. Our waitress did explain the concept to us in more detail, but it took about 15 minutes for my friend to fully understand it.
We chose the Rejuvenation Pot ($2.50) with a meat combination ($10.50). Raisins and dates swirled in a clear broth inside my mini-pot. Through this meal I was introduced to new foods: winter melon, sliced lotus, and black fungus, a hearty silky mushroom. Yet again, the juices from the hot pot were lost once the items, including beef and fried tofu, were dipped in the sesame sauce.
The restaurant takes the DIY cooking a step further by offering an Asian Grill, which has a $28 minimum order. Unseasoned raw shrimp ($9.50), scallops ($11), and short ribs basted in a mild teriyaki sauce ($10.50) were set on the table. Several sauces and powders were served alongside. It was not explained if they were for dipping or for seasoning the uncooked food.
We cooked the food on a metal grill with a heat source underneath it. Although there was no flame, some moms may want to think twice about bringing young children here with bubbling water and hot surfaces on the table.
Here again it was uncertain how to discern when a scallop was fully cooked, as well as the short ribs. We found the ribs juicy, with the right amount of fat for flavor. However, the shrimp and scallops were bland, and we felt our hard work was fruitless.
If this restaurant were situated in Chinatown in New York City, I would rate it differently, as the population it served would probably have a familiarity with the concept and way of cooking. I would also judge it differently if this were based on the prepared dishes, which I thought were excellent and could satisfy both vegans and meat lovers. It serves fresh ingredients and even brings exotic tastes to the table, including chicken hearts, frog legs, beef tripe, and a page filled with mushroom varieties.
However, when you place a restaurant near the mall, you are welcoming the general population to dig in. Though the quality ingredients are abundant, the lack of clarity on behalf of the staff left this first time hot potter twiddling empty chopsticks and wondering where I would get my meal once I left the restaurant.
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Star ratings are based on comparisons of similar restaurants. The Blade pays for critics' meals.