Brand new in Carlton, Panda Hot Pot at 100 Victoria St, Carlton opened just a week ago. If the address of the premises seem familiar to you; it's because in its other life, the building housed the Dracula Theatre Restaurant which closed down in 2017. Yi Li the owner of Panda Hot Pot has transformed the ghoulish guts of the theatre restaurant into ancient China complete with a nearly 16 metre long, 1.5 tonne steel dragon suspended at entry-level that cannot be missed. In the timeframe I was there, just about every passer-by was taken aback, halted and took a picture of the very impressive Dragon with a warrior riding its back, brought all the way over from Chengdu.
Australia's first Panda Hot Pot right here in Melbourne, it belongs to a chain with more than 400 restaurants worldwide. The recurring theme here is Chengdu, the capital of southwestern China's Sichuan province with a history dating back to at least the 4th century B.C. It's also the breeding ground of China's most famous giant pandas. It so happens that the hot pot also originated in Chengdu, and therein lies the clue to the name of the restaurant.
There's street parking outside the restaurant with a maximum of 2 hours till 8.30pm at $7 an hour, though if you're going for a late lunch, you need to take note that at around 4pm it becomes a clearway till 6.30pm. Walking through the massive carved wooden doors is very impressive and I almost expected a gong to sound to announce my arrival. You will be taken aback by the opulence of the venue, covered in red, my favourite colour, and gold. There's a sweeping staircase that takes you to the upper second level which houses private dining rooms so to speak, while the ground level is open for all to see.
Taking a leaf out of the page of the theatre restaurant, Panda Hot Pot has nightly shows ranging from music (a Chinese stringed instrument sits at the entry), dancing, opera, cultural performances, and more. The restaurant promotes inclusion and it's all about family, be it your own, or colleagues and friends who are like family. The hot pot is all about sitting around a beautiful big bowl of steaming hot pot with everyone cooking their own finely sliced, fresh produce in the broth as they share stories and experiences. By the end of it, the broth is impregnated with flavours from all the meats cooked in it and delicious to slurp down if you still have room to spare.
Paying attention to creating a beautiful homage to the native cuisine, expect the finest ingredients that go into developing their signature 12 hour broths that embraces all aspects of the ancient craft of hot pot. At the center of the table is a sunken bowl into which the steaming broth will be put, arriving in its own cooking vessel. There's water and tissues on the side for your convenience and some oils on the table top if you want to add it to your cooking. There's also a dedicated sauce table under the staircase that goes to the next level that houses ingredients in rows of red bowls to make your own DIY dip sauce.
The usage of the DIY dip sauce area comes at a cost of $3.80. You're provided with little sauce bowls into which you add ingredients that suit your palate. The traditional sauce combo is sesame oil, garlic, spring onion, coriander and oyster sauce, all of which is available alongside many other ingredients. First, you order your soup base which is a separate cost, and to that you add the cost of your chosen ingredients. There's the signature, and half signature Sichuan spicy soup base you can order at the heat level you can handle, eg. mild, hot or CRAZY level hot. Other soup bases to choose from are the pork bone broth, mushroom and tomato soup base which are not spicy.
Get yourself comfortable and strap yourself in for the experience. Take note that the traditional Chinese tables have a framework that hangs a little lower in the row of tables I sat at, which might be a bit uncomfortable for some whose thighs may be wedged up against it. On the menu you'll find cooking timeframes for each of the ingredients you order to cook in your broth. You can order separate ingredients or go for the Chef's Choice signature combination, which is what I had. The other platter available is the seafood platter.
In its traditional form and keeping in mind you are coming for the authentic experience, your ingredients include beef tripe, pork rib, prawn mash, duck intestines, tongue, pig liver, pork brain, boneless duck feet, black fungus and so on. There are a choice of 80 ingredients to choose from, so pardon me for having a little bit of fun and putting up ingredients for shock value to the uninitiated. Insert big smile! Geared to family and groups, coming on your own is a far more expensive option as the broth comes in one size and you can choose two different broths.
If you came as a party of four, the same amount of broth would suffice for all the ingredients to be cooked in and the soup would be even more delicious with 4 people cooking their individual choices in the broth. I didn't order any carbs like noodles and vermicelli to go with my meats as I knew that would fill me up too much; whereas shared in a party of 4, it would be the perfect base accompaniment. With two different broths just for a table of one, in spite of my best efforts, there was no way I could drink all that beautiful soup.
Rice, fried rice with egg, rice wine ball, brown sugar iced pudding, fried banana with bread and fried sticky rice cake with brown sugar are listed as house snacks. There's a range of beverages you can order by the glass or in a jug. Choose from watermelon juice, fresh orange, fresh pineapple, and plum juice, and the following by the bottle; coconut palm, coconut milk, the usual soft drinks like Coke, Fanta and Sprite, sparkling water, soy milk (cold/hot), Wang Zai milk, Arctic Ocean soda (orange soda) and Wong Lo Kat. There's also Chamomile tea, green tea, Oolong tea and honey citron tea. Other drinks include fresh Asahi tap beer, Asahi black tap beer, Corona, Cider, Peach Blossom Drink, Lychee Tingle Drink, wines and more.
Be careful with that soup as you take it to your lips as it's switched on the whole time and kept on the boil to keep on cooking your ingredients. Take family and friends and check out the new kid on the block. For me the platter was a good option as on the day I didn't have that much time or parking time to afford the time needed to choose every single ingredient. It came in a beautiful box filled with ice, with just one layer of the ingredients sitting on top. It was definitely a lovely experience sitting in the beautiful restaurant, marvelling at the dragon with a projection of the moving sky above it and chowing down on my hot pot.
The broth came with a huge knuckle bone the size of my fist powering the flavours, along with some slices of corn on the cob, slices of lotus root and Chinese red plums that added a touch of sweetness when bitten into. You can bet your bottom dollar I pulled that huge knuckle bone out of the pot in the end, and stripped it off its small bits of soft juicy meat unashamedly and enjoyed the complete experience thoroughly!
Check the Facebook page for updates and pictures so you know what you're in for, and the website for online reservations, membership and more.