Wednesday, 14 September 2016
Shuang Shuang, Chinatown
If you've ever been lucky enough to spend your evening using little wire fishing nets to scoop beef balls and sliced spam out of a vat of boiling animal stock, you'll know that the Chinese Steamboat, or Hot Pot, is one of the most enjoyable ways of having dinner. But the amount of preparation required, not to mention the large amount of specific kit you need, means it's generally impractical to really make the most of with even two people, never mind the solo diner, and most hot pot joints in London (for example the rather good Little Lamb) are geared towards tables of four upwards. You order what you hope is enough food - huge plates of curled wafer-thin beef, neat rows of raw prawns, as much tofu as you can carry - and dump it all in the broth. Then generally lose a few bits for a half hour and come across a manky overcooked bit of grey matter just as you're ready to pack up and go home. It's all part of the fun.
But a few doors down from Little Lamb is a brand new way of eating hot pot that can cope just as well with the solo diner as the large group. Shuang Shuang, it has to be said, is a very clever concept. The bar that snakes organically around the bright downstairs dining room has, at regular intervals, a sunken receptacle for the traditional hot pot tins, divided into two. So couples can share a single pot, or the solo diner can just have one half to themselves. Running along the top of the bar is a Yo! Sushi-style conveyor belt carrying along little starter-sized portions of the usual hot pot ingredients which you're charged for - again in the Yo! Sushi way - at the end by totting up different coloured empty plates.
The concept, then, has every chance of being a roaring success. The question is whether Shuang Shuang can run the nuts and bolts of the service and other details well enough to make that success happen. And I have to say our evening didn't get off to a fantastic start when we were ignored for a good ten minutes after being seated and forced to watch another party just to our left get seated, served and begin enjoying their dinner before we'd even had an opportunity to gasp for water.
But then we started spotting interesting cold dishes travelling past on the conveyor, and a couple of early choices instantly made up for it. Smacked cucumber and a pig's ear salad were two superbly-constructed Sichuan staples that had just that addictive play of heat, texture and colour that makes food from that part of the world so endlessly rewarding. And at barely a couple of quid each (as far as I can make out; the menu only bears a vague resemblence to the dishes on offer, as do the prices), pretty good value.
For the main event, we decided to split our pot between the "Mala" broth, numbing with a serious amount of Sichuan peppercorns, and the rather more subtle (in fact a bit bland at first) "Black Bird" made from rare breed chicken. Into these we divided beef balls, pork mince, two different types of noodles, and I think a couple of other selections from the travellator, pork & prawn wontons and tofu. And yes, it was all pretty good. These are cheap ingredients of course but after they'd all been bouncing around in the broth for a while they took on that familiar rewarding hot pot flavour, of mystery meat and animal stock, and we had very little cause to complain.
Well, there was one thing. "Wagyu" beef, ordered from our rather elusive waiter, arrived completely frozen solid. I'm not naive enough to think that Japanese Wagyu isn't usually frozen as it travels halfway across the world but I do think if I'm paying £9 for a plate of it in a restaurant in London they could at least bother defrosting it first. It didn't taste that dissimilar to the "normal" conveyor belt beef anyway, once it had been given a few minutes in the hot pot, so maybe that's just nature's way of telling me not to spend money on Wagyu beef in Chinese restaurants.
Anyway, snaggles with service and frozen beef sticks aside, we did enjoy dinner. And if the plan is indeed to roll it out into airport departure lounges and shopping centers up and down the country then, well, I guess it beats Café Rouge. Our bill came to £40.28 for two, which is incredibly reasonable, and given its very handy location and and despite the no-reservations seating policy (which makes sense really) I can certainly see myself popping back. Shuang Shuang deserves all the credit for coming up with a genuinely new way of serving traditional Chinese food in London, and you can't say that very often.
If they manage to squash a few of the early issues, there's a very good chance Shuang Shuang could make it in to the next version of the app. Meanwhile see where else is good in Chinatown.