A friend and I have been excited about "the hot pot place in Barkly Street" for as long as I can remember. It sits under a new apartment building and took a couple of years to finally get its somewhat odd name, "Foodcrazy", displayed on the windows. Numerous attempts to go there have continually been foiled. Finally we made a date. Text messages went back and forth in a flurry - some I think were nothing but "HOT POT!!" in excited capitals. The hot pot night approached and finally arrived.
Foodcrazy serves Szechuan food from the Szechuan region in central China. This has become quite popular in Melbourne over the last few years and is characterised by the mouth-numbing Szechuan peppercorn and liberal use of whole dried chillies. Bean sauce is a staple of Szechuan cooking, as used in Grandpa's special noodles as well as the classic Szechuan dish "ma po tofu" or "pockmarked grandmother's tofu", a warm, comforting dish of pork mince and silky tofu. The hot pot - a bubbling pot of light stock in which diners cook their choice of meats, starches and vegetables at the table - is popular in different guises across Asia, but particularly so in the Szechuan provinces of Chengdu and Chongqing.
Upon entering Foodcrazy one is asked if one would like the normal menu or the hot pot menu. Accordingly there are two different types of marble table in the restaurant - a regular table and one with a large circular well cut into it, under which sits a small gas burner.
The hot pot menu itself is two photocopied "tick-the-box" order forms. One can go a la carte, paying around $15 for a pot of broth and then adding on the various meats, vegetables, condiments and sides. We chose to go with the buffet where for $25 each we could choose an almost unlimited array of goodies to dip in our "double-taste" hot pot, as well as a number of cold side dishes and dipping sauces.
First came a delicious chicken salad in "special sauce". Poached cold chicken, spring onion and crunchy peanuts in an oily, chilli sauce - I believe this is the famous Sichuan mala sauce? Love the 'Nanna's soap dish' plate.
We also chose the Szechuan pickled vegetables. These were different to those I had had at Hu Tong recently - while Hu Tong's were spicy, a little oily and hot with green chilli, these were large, sweet and very mild - similar to Vietnamese pickled vegetables. Still, they were really good.
The moment arrived - our 'double taste' hot pot was finally here!! One side was evidently a very mild broth, perhaps chicken-based, while the other was a very dark brew, slicked with oil and full of bobbing Szechuan peppercorns and dried chillies.
Our goodies arrived and were placed on this neat little shelf at the side of the table. Above you can see 'frozen tofu', lamb (strange, circular, very fatty frozen slices), 'seasonal vegetables' (wong bok) and underneath 'sweet potato noodles'.
We also ordered the chef's special beef as well as the 'blue crab'. Other choices on the menu were gluten (probably like seitan?) and 'mini muffin'.
We chose a sesame sauce which was very similar to tahini, garlic oil, and paid $1 extra for chive flower paste.
So, time to get stuck in. We didn't really know where to start, though. We tried to ask the staff what was meant to go where - was there some kind of system? Did the noodles go in one broth and the meat in the other? Which sauce was for what thing? They were friendly but a little bemused by the questions, just saying that yes, you cook it all in there, before leaving us to it.
So we did our best. We dipped, we swirled, we scooped... and we did not like it. The noodles got lost somewhere at the bottom of each murky broth and were extremely hard to fish out, constantly slithering back in like a giant squid's tentacles off an ancient mariner's ship. The lamb slices were unpleasantly fatty, like streaky bacon, but without the corresponding smoky, delicious flavour. The 'chef's special beef' was heavily treated with bicarb, giving it a strange spongy consistency. The 'frozen tofu' was just that - frozen tofu - and if you have ever, like me, left your tofu up the back of your crappy share-house fridge only to find it rock hard, you will know that tofu does not freeze well, losing its structure and becoming soft, watery and mushy. Not nice.
We tried to be positive. I tipped various sauces on various things, having no idea what went with what. The chive flower paste, although it had an intriguing grassy scent, was so heavily salted it was inedible. I did enjoy the sesame paste, though, and the cabbage was quite nice. I did not like the chilli broth at all - the Szechuan peppercorns were almost whole and gave the noodles fished out of there an odd gritty consistency. The mild broth was flavourless.
To add insult to injury, we never received our 'blue crab', and upon reminding the staff we were summarily presented with a plate of frozen crab sticks.
Eventually we both stopped eating - still hungry, but with totally no appetite for the food. We scrambled for the last of the pickled vegetables. Even the cold chicken salad had lost its shine by then, the oil separating from the dressing and making it greasy and unappealing.
Upon leaving my friend remarked that it had seemed like fast food. I didn't know what she meant but after some research, it appears that Foodcrazy is part of a Chinese chain who have two other restaurants in Melbourne. I hesitate to totally bag it, though. We had no idea what we were doing, really, and to say that the hot pot at Foodcrazy is bad or indeed that Szechuan hot pot is bad is like pouring orange juice over Weet Bix and then saying Weet Bix are bad.
I am reminded of the time I sat next to an older Asian gentleman on a flight somewhere. We were presented with a scone and I watched him cut it up with his knife and fork and eat it, without butter, jam, or anything. It must have tasted horrible. I wanted to tap him on the shoulder and tell him that he should cut it in half, spread it with a little butter and/or jam, ask for a cup of milky tea and then enjoy what is quite a nice afternoon snack - not to mention the virtues of homemade scones with stawberry jam and stiffly whipped cream with a pot of proper leaf tea. So perhaps there was a secret to the Szechuan hot pot we did not grasp.
Luckily our enthusiasm for 'HOT POT!!' has not waned and we next plan to try Vietnamese 'steamboat', hoping that it will have perhaps a clearer stock and fresher ingredients. The anticipation is building. We really should keep our expectations in check... but anticipation is the purest form of pleasure.
Shop 2-3, 250 Barkly St, Footscray (map)
Phone: 9687 2361