Slow down, eat soup
HL Hot Pot
HL Hot Pot6930 65th St.
Some restaurants are like a temple of flavor where eating can be an almost religious experience. The food at such a place must be focused on and eaten mindfully, not chatted over. Kru Contemporary Japanese Cuisine (2516 J Street) comes to mind, as does Ella Dining Room & Bar (1131 K Street). The experiences at those types of places are usually quite individual except for periodic exclamations about the food.
Some restaurants, on the other hand, lend themselves to a convivial, communal experience where the food seems secondary. These types of places are filled with large tables populated by large groups—friends, family, et al. Some tables, perhaps, may even sport a lazy Susan, one of the world’s greatest inventions.
HL Hot Pot falls into the latter category. Here, the restaurant’s large room is dominated by a huge, fancy fish tank, and there are refrigerated cases at the back to allow the servers to quickly access the soup components that comprise its long list of ingredients. The ingredients encompass much of the plant and animal kingdom and range from fish to fowl to fungus and back again.
It works like this: Servers take your order and then wheel the broth and ingredients over on a silver cart. (You might have to flag them down, and I had to ask twice to get the TV over our table turned off.)
On one visit, I pick four of the six broths; each is served two to a segregated pot and plunked onto the table-side burner. The beef broth is essentially pho, heavy on the star anise. The house broth is hardly subtle either, with whole cloves and Chinese dates floating therein. The miso shows a light hand with the dashi and miso paste, and the Thai-style broth exhibits tart lemongrass. The key is that the broth boils down over time and becomes saltier, concentrated and deeper tasting as the meal progresses—all the more reason to linger with friends over the meal.
The following are some ingredients that I sampled throughout my meal (these categories play very fast and loose with scientific classifications):
Quadrupeds: The sliced-thin Kobe beef and lamb unfortunately both contract and toughen when they hit boiling broth, although the Kobe less so. The porcine meatballs have an overly springy texture, and the blood cake proved to be the least-popular ingredient at our table. Like the nerdy girl at the prom, it sat unloved, still at the table when the dance was over.
Piscine: The peppery fish cake here is served in raw patties with no instructions on how to pick them up, so armed only with chopsticks, I grapple one into the pot until I figure out how to render it just tender by modulating the cooking time. An appetizer of battered and fried creamy oysters was as popular as the prom queen and gone within minutes.
Poultry: The choices offered consisted mostly of innards, and I balk at the idea of grasping raw chicken breast with chopsticks, so instead, this category is represented by cute little quail eggs with perfectly oozy yolks.
Fungi: The Bunapi and white crab mushrooms, no matter how exotic, taste very similar and like, well, cultivated mushrooms.
Flora: The photosynthetic options yield the most surprises. The “Tong O” features a woodsy, foraged flavor similar to miner’s lettuce, and the watercress loses its heat when dunked into the broth and becomes mild and juicy.
Legumes: The pleasant, layered, slippery texture of the tofu skin is a revelation—this is now my new jam, and I order it in any incarnation, including at dim sum.
Wild card: Glass noodles can be made with various starches, and I’m not expert enough to pick whether these are made of tubers or legumes. I cook them last—the better to soak up the last remaining cups of the now-intense broth.
HL Hot Pot fosters sampling and sharing and is the kind of place where you may find yourself in such a lively conversation that the next time you look down, you see a table full of empty dishes. Unless you order the blood cake.