Do-it-yourself food at silver spoon prices
Chinese food in London has long been dominated by Cantonese cooking, but that appeared to be changing in the mid noughties with Sichuanese eateries opening up across the city. That move towards better representation of China’s myriad regional cuisines soon stalled, but it appears to have restarted with new Taiwanese restaurants setting up shop. The latest non-roast, non-dumpling Chinese restaurant to open is Shuang Shuang, a restaurant solely devoted to hot pot.
Hot pot isn’t well-known amongst the general public, which is a shame as it’s a fun and convivial way of eating out. A bubbling pot of broth, kept warm by a hotplate, is shared by everyone at the table. You order a smorgasbord of food, from fish and meatballs to vegetables and noodles, and then cook everything yourself by dipping it into the broth.
Shuang Shuang tries to make hotpot more approachable to newcomers by fiddling with this format. Smaller pots, warmed by induction hotplates built into the tables, makes it more feasible for couples and lone eagle diners to have hotpot. The plates of food, meanwhile, are plucked off a Japanese kaiten-style conveyor belt which makes over- and under-ordering, bug bears of more traditional table service hotpot restaurants, all but impossible. It’s a clever system, but it has problems of its own as we’ll soon see.
Shuang Shuang bills itself as London’s first dedicated hotpot restaurant which is semantically dodgy at best. There are other hotpot restaurants in London of varying quality and with other non-hotpot dishes on their menus, usually as an afterthought to please the sweet-and-sour-pork crowd.
A choice of five broths is available at Shuang Shuang. Although other reviewers have apparently somehow managed to convince the staff to serve two broths in a single pot separated by a divider, I had no such luck. The Lamb Tonic was moreish with hints of meaty and mildly spiced oils. The Fish Pond was far less successful, resembling a one-note fish sauce but oddly sweet too.
The rest of the broths were thankfully better than the Fish Pond. Although the Mala wasn’t especially spicy despite its fiery billing, it did have a sour and herby bitterness which made up for it. You can apparently order a spicier version and this isn’t hidden away off-menu as is often annoyingly the case at other Chinatown restaurant, hot pot or otherwise. The Free Bird tasted like a heavily reduced and clarified chicken consommé, but with a herby sweetness due to the presence of goji berries. Some will be put off by the mere presence of soya milk as the base of the vegan Temple Brew, but its creamy and lightly sweet moreishness was appealing whether you’re a meat-dodger or not. Of course, the distinctive each character of the broth gets muddied by whatever foods you cook in it, but that’s all part of the fun. Supping spoonfuls of broth in between cooking is a good way to pass the small intervals of time spent cooking. You get one free refill of broth if you run out, or are just cack handed with the heating controls, which should be more than enough.
A wide array of different foodstuffs are available for cooking in your chosen broth. Despite the differing characteristics of each broth, none of the ingredients I tried clashed with any of them. Each plate plucked from the conveyor belt is stickered with a recommended cooking time. Although 4-5 minutes is probably about right for the seafood dishes, 3-4 minutes seems like overkill for the thin slices of beef and pork. They’re probably that lengthy for health and safety reasons, but if you’re confident enough then eye-balling when items are cooked will serve you just as well resulting in dishes that aren’t overcooked.
The real problem is cost control. Each plate of food on the conveyor belt is colour coded, signifying its price. Black – £1, Black and White – £1.80, Green – £2, Yellow – £2.30, Red – £2.90 and finally Blue – £4.30. The £10 specials effectively form a sixth tier. That’s about three or four tiers too many as far as I’m concerned, as it makes sticking to a budget difficult – if you can keep track of those coloured pricing tiers when picking ingredients, while cooking and enjoying others at the same time and holding conversations with your dining companions, then you’re a better person than I am.
This pricing complexity is somewhat ironic given that some of the best items are also the cheapest. Meatballs, whether hearty beef, salty fish or surprisingly smooth and light pork, are among my favourites. Onion-shaped fish balls, some with pork in the centre, were a salty delight and took on the flavour of the broths well. These onion domes were the only ones that needed more cooking time than recommended. Tender and wrinkly pork offal (probably stomach or intestines), as well thin and tender slices of liver resplendent with an offally funk, were arguably more enjoyable than the reasonably zingy but ultimately forgettable peeled prawns and shucked scallops. Although unappetising in appearance before cooking, umami prawn loaf or the alternate pork and prawn loaf were also winners.
I didn’t encounter any outright terrible dishes, but there were quite a few mediocre ones. Pig’s blood tofu was smooth, but only modestly umami. Neither the grainy texture nor the overall spam-like nature of the pork luncheon loaf endeared itself to me, while the various cuts of beef were so thinly sliced, and thus devoid of texture and fat, as to be indistinguishable.
The one exception to this rule was the special of ‘Japanese marbled beef’ which was wonderfully fatty and exceptionally good at soaking up the flavours of whatever broth it was dunked in to. Its £10 price will leave you spluttering with disbelief though. Oddly, spending that much on such a small portion of meat is easier to justify than it is spending it on the clams, another special. While fresh and fleshy, they retained little of their fragrance when cooked and yet did a poor job of soaking up the flavours of whatever broth they were cooked in.
Unctuous pork belly and dense, earthy slices of lamb were more cost effective alternatives to the marbled beef. The meh udon and vermicelli as well as the cheap, flavourless egg noodles should be avoided in favour of the thick and hearty yam noodles or the thick and supple rice noodles. Fried dough sticks unsurprisingly became quite soggy when immersed in broth for any period of time, but they were still pleasing thanks to their general maltiness. Bready bits of fried tofu were forgettable, while the mushroom selection could’ve done with more enoki and shiitake instead of the nameless filler. Dense and hearty yet supple yuba tofu knots went down a treat. Meaty bits of bream-like white fish were somewhat anonymous, while the slices of yam and lotus root needed a lot of cooking time to avoid being crunchily inedible.
Although a vaguely satay-esque house dipping sauce is provided, I found opting for the ‘make your own’ selection of sauces comprising of nutty, tart and spicy sauces along with garlic, coriander, chilli and spring onion garnishes a far more enjoyable experience.
The ‘snacks’ and desserts
Cooking the various ingredients at Shuang Shuang barely takes any time at all, whether you follow the recommended times or not. If you’re impatient then there are some starter-sized snacks to keep you amused in the interim. The distinct aroma and taste of jasmine tea complimented the salty richness of the preserved eggs’ yolks well. Spicy pig’s ears were fleshy and moderately spicy, instead of being just mildly exotic pork scratchings. The pea tofu, apparently made from peas instead of the usual soya beans, was surprisingly light and airy with a gummy texture that’s much more appealing than it sounds. The sauce imparted a gentle herby sweetness and a touch of tartness too. The only disappointment was the scallop and prawn fritters which were too oily and chewy, although they did have an oddly evocative and fleshy sea salty centre.
Although two desserts are listed on the menu, the only one that was ever available across my multiple visits was the soya milk ice cream with crystallised ginger. Although a little too crunchy and icy, the ice cream did have the distinctive flavour of sweetened soy milk which contrasted nicely with the modest spicy hit of the crunchy ginger. Or at least it did, when the ginger wasn’t replaced by oddly more generic and less satisfying fried dough bits on subsequent visits.
I never failed to have a good time at Shuang Shuang across my multiple visits. The hotpots were always hearty and fun, but I can’t quite bring myself to recommend it unconditionally. The aforementioned tiered pricing is a problem as it really does make it difficult to stick to a budget – it’s almost as if the kaiten conveyor belt system was designed to encourage upspending. If you walk in with any sort of appetite, then you’ll be looking at £45 per head if not £60. That’s fine dining prices for food which, in large part, you cook yourself. I never criticise a London restaurant over pricing lightly given the overheads that the capital imposes on businesses, but that just doesn’t seem right.
The kaiten system is well-suited for dating couples and lone wolves, but the row seating that the conveyor belt dictates effectively rules out the group dining which hotpots are usually well-suited for. Unless you’re in a group of three, or arrive early enough at this no-reservations restaurant to be seated on either side of the conveyor, eating at Shuang Shuang in a large-ish group quickly becomes an asocial experience. Although there are allegedly booths on the upper floor, the slightly scatty staff, another problem in of itself, never offered them as a seating option, no matter how many dining companions I turned up with.
Still, if you can live with these problems and issues then you’ll have a good time at Shuang Shuang. If nothing else, it’s bringing Chinese hotpot to a wider audience. The initial all-Chinese expat clientèle quickly became more mixed over my visits with plenty of hotpot novices fumbling around. That can only be a good thing.
Broths to order: Lamb Tonic; Mala; Temple Brew; Freebird
Ingredients to order: Meatballs; Offal; Prawn or pork and prawn loaf; Pork belly; Yam noodles; Yuba tofu knots
Name: Shuang Shuang
Address: 64 Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1D 6LU
Phone: 020 7734 5416
Opening Hours: seven days a week noon-23.00.
Reservations: not taken
Average cost for one person including soft drinks and service charge: £45-60 approx. (highly variable)