There are those who love the Cook-It-Yourself dining experience, and then there are those who feel it undermines the rationale of going out to a restaurant. Personally, I'm ambivalent. Yeah, I like a little Korean barbecue every now and then; and fondue, shabu shabu and hot pots – while faddish – can break up the typical restaurant routine. I can't say I've ever had a stellar, or even memorable, CIY experience, but then again, I haven't lowered my head over a vessel of sensory-shocking Szechuan hot pot in Chengdu, China, either – an experience Anthony Bourdain likened to being spanked and jerked off at the same time.
Not that a sensation akin to a clobber and yank was expected at Winter Park's Hotto Potto, but I'd hoped that, at the very least, I'd pay the price the following day. So as we sat at our table listening to an enthused waiter passionately describe the technique of "Asian fondue" and spice levels of the available broths (chicken-based or rice-based), two words caught my attention – "numb spicy." Could it be that the famed peppers used to infuse the bubbling hot pots in Szechuan Province had found their way to Winter Park's less fashionable quadrant? Being deep in peppery reverie, I barely paid heed to anything else the waiter said and started poring over the menu's dunkables. Given the sheer number of items ordered, I probably should've listened when he sounded warnings about portion size. Within minutes, our elbows were brushing up against plates of beef tendon balls (2.50) and pork-chive dumplings ($2.50); fuzzy squash ($2) and Chinese broccoli ($2); live blue crab ($9.99) and straw mushrooms ($2.90); Wagyu beef ($6.99) and duck feet ($2.50), and a whole lot more.
After a while, the circular lines between dishes of veggies, noodles and animal parts blurred. The only remedy: firing up the tabletop burners and consigning the ingredients into the bubbling brews. A split pot allowed a mild vegetarian broth ($3.50) and the numb-spicy, chicken-based broth ($3.50) to sit side by side. Into the mild went the crab, as well as octopus slices ($2.90), live shrimp ($5.99) and udon noodles ($2), turning the broth a radioactive pink.
While the fresh seafood was drawing unanimous praise from our table, beef tendon, duck feet, Wagyu slices and pork balls ($2.50) bobbed with rice noodles ($2) in the numb-spicy pot. Immediately noticeable were the peppers – not the Szechuan variety, but readily available red chilies. In a third pot, we chose a medium-spicy, chicken-based stock ($3.50) to boil pork-chive dumplings, chicken ($2.50) and beef slices ($2.50). We tried for a semblance of broth-ingredient order but, inevitably, a whole lot of mixing and matching (and shirt-splattering) took place, allowing for a diverse array of flavors, especially in the vegetables. The longer we allowed the broths to bubble, the deeper and richer the flavors got, which is essentially the idea. Yet the numb-spicy stock just wallowed and, ultimately, failed to live up to its threat. Sure, a bit of perspiration moistened our collective napes, but there was no muscular paralysis and certainly no painful pleasure.
After a while, we seemed to be dutifully emptying our plates rather than truly indulging in, say, the fatty curls of Wagyu beef or umami-soaked oyster mushrooms. "It was different," said one of us. "The ingredients were fresh," said another. "Effort and reward was balanced," said I.
That, we all agreed, was taking proper stock of the situation.
Get your daily ration of Salivation Army blogs.orlandoweekly.com/salivationarmy
3090 Aloma Ave., Winter Park