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279 La Trobe St, Melbourne, VIC 3000
My score: 4/5
The best thing about eating out in Melbourne isn’t finding things that taste great, it’s connecting with cultures all around the world without leaving the city. And, if I can assume that you, gentle reader, are not one of the 70,000 Chinese students living among us, then you – like me – will find David’s Hotpot an energising, spicy adventure.
There are plenty of Sichuan hotpot restaurants in Melbourne but I haven’t seen one as immersive and garrulous as David’s. It’s popular too, so busy that I was phoned an hour before I arrived, not so much to confirm my booking as to warn me that I better get there on time, and preferably early. I hightailed it.
You walk in the grand entrance to be greeted by a head-waggling hand-flapping larger-than-life mascot. You sit in carved throne-like chairs wearing a daggy plastic bib. You hear no skerrick of English as you dive into your meal. And then, before you leave, you spritz yourself at the odour-neutralising perfume machine. It’s so fun!
Hotpot dining is convivial so come with a squad. Vats of broth bubble away over tabletop elements while diners submerge various morsels: frozen scrolls of meat, leaves, sliced tofu, or ox penis, for example. Once they’re cooked, they’re fished out, dipped into condiments and chopsticked into the mouth.
There are choices to make. First, select your broth. Unless you’re hardcore, choose a two-part pool divided into spicy and less spicy. David’s is proud of its tallow broths, based on beef fat, but I went for less unctuous oxtail. Whichever you choose, waiters will top it up from kettles as necessary. Your broth will get more spicy as it bubbles away, sort of like a dragon in a lair being niggled and poked until it erupts in a fiery roar.
The menu is an extensive checklist affair. Some will tick the pig brain, blood or duck intestine, while others will prefer thinly sliced beef or lamb. I loved the fishballs and “DIY #1”, a platter of sliced brisket, chilli and coriander that you roll up and secure with a length of pickled celtuce (a thick-stemmed lettuce). You must have the noodles, which you stretch into long ribbons at the table before easing them into the broth.
I have some tips. Stir your pot and don’t let it get too hot: find the tableside controls. Napkins are hidden in drawers at your table but you can also buy wet wipes. Do wear the bib – even chopstick champs may find it tricky to extract morsels from boiling broth.
The small tin on your table is not a drink, it’s sesame oil for you to mix with the dipping sauces and condiments: choose from XO sauce, minced garlic, spring onions, MSG and a dozen more.
Don’t be alarmed if everyone in the restaurant starts shaking their phone like a maraca: they’re playing a networked game that you can watch on the restaurant’s display screens.
There’s been some confusion about the relationship between this Sichuan restaurant and the Shanghainese David’s in Prahran. They are not associated. In fact, this “David” is a phonetic rendering of “da wei” or “big flavour”. It’s an appropriate name: the flavours are big and the experience is huge.
See their website.
First published in Good Food, 11th October 2018.