Dainty Sichuan

DIY dining: Custom induction-cooker tables wait at the ready.
DIY dining: Custom induction-cooker tables wait at the ready. Photo: Ken Irwin

Level 1, 2A Cambridge Street Box Hill, Victoria 3128

View map

03 9041 4318
Opening hours Daily 11.30am-3pm
Features Vegetarian friendly, Gluten-free options, Licensed
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Payments eftpos, Visa, Mastercard

Communal hotpots? They're, like, so a thousand years ago, dude. Trending right now in China are hotpots for one, a choose-your-own broth that bubbles at the table but keeps the steamboat party humming with big platters of dunkable ingredients for the table to share.

It's high vibe, DIY dining and it's loads of fun.

Leading Melbourne's individualistic hotpot charge is Dainty Sichuan, a rambunctious upstairs 220-seater that runs flat-stick.

Abalone and super spicy hotpot combo.
Abalone and super spicy hotpot combo. Photo: Ken Irwin

It's the fifth restaurant by chef Tina Li and her husband Ye Shao - Sichuan cuisine pioneers in Melbourne - who started with a humble eight-seater in Collingwood before expanding to the CBD where a cult fascination grew for the fiery hot cuisine.

They now own Daintys in South Yarra, the city, and Box Hill, my favourite of the trilogy so far. It's packed most nights, already a favourite of the local Chinese crowd. Its million-dollar fitout feels well-spent, with plump red booths and wood-crafted screens.

The vibe is fast and loose. Staff rush past and steam plumes curl festively from the hotpots on the induction-cooker tables.

Dainty's strength at all three restaurants is its authenticity.

Wild bamboo shoots come from the Sichuan province, along with specialty tea tree mushrooms, and glass noodles - clear cellophane sweet potato noodles, made the traditional way ''from a village in the mountains'', Shao says. A few times a year Li arranges supplies with her sister, who lives in their hometown, Chongqing.

So how does it work? Choose your broth from a list of 12 - maybe lamb tripe, or oxtail, or duck and pickled radish - and tick off your order on the form.

The abalone and chicken is superb, the broth cooked up with a whole chook - the meat, the bones, the gizzards, mixed with Tasmanian abalone that's taken live from the tank to order. Chilli freaks, go for the ''super spicy'' floating with whole chillies, the base made from chillies, ginger, garlic, Sichuan pepper, broadbean paste and more than 20 herbs and spices slow-fried for two hours in vegetable oil. If you can't decide, go for the double soup base, but for vegetarians, there's one choice: mushroom soup.

Pore through the vast picture menu and decide as a group which artfully arranged platters work best.

For the lighter, milder broths such as chicken and abalone, you might choose thin-cut wagyu, rice vermicelli, calamari, scored on one side so it curls prettily when cooked, or exotic fungi from the delicate, netted veil mushroom to springy cloud ear fungus.

Spicy, gutsier soups favour smashed meats - such as prawn or lamb, minced daily on site - and handmade meatballs (pork flecked with coriander vanished quickly). Market-price live Murray cod is great for a splurge, or cheap-eat with top-value combos that include anything from lotus root to pork blood curd.

Then hit the sauce bar, loaded with more than 30 toppings, mostly house-made, such as XO and green chilli.

To cook, charge your hotplate till the broth starts to bubble and plunge in the richest ingredients first - the smashed meats, followed by sliced meat or shiitake if you're going vego - to add depth to the broth. Next, submerge the vegies, followed by noodles.

I love this place. It's a hoot and perfect for a group.

Do … Expect to wait 30 minutes at weekends, or book for seven or more.

Don't … Just want hotpots? Try the cold dishes and barbecue.

Dishes … Abalone and super spicy hotpot combo.

Vibe … Upbeat funhouse of DIY dining.

Twitter: @ninarousseau, or nrousseau@fairfaxmedia.com.au