38 Gozzard Street Gungahlin, ACT 29121300 468 768
|Opening hours||Lunch and dinner seven days, noon-2.30pm, 5-10pm|
|Features||BYO, Cheap Eats, Licensed, Wheelchair access|
|Payments||Cash, Mastercard, Visa, eftpos|
The expression ''all you can eat'' is not an immediate lure to your average gourmet. Images of American barns filled with patrons the size of small trucks shovelling down mountains of sugary, salty nasties abound.
At Hot Pot Gungahlin, the $26 all you can eat deal is a little different.
A salad bar of green veg, interesting fungi and tofu, and a dozen dipping sauces line the bar as you enter what looks like a converted suburban cafe.
Take a seat at one of the long tables, or in the two semi-private rooms (each seating 10), and the waiter will soon arrive to explain the procedure.
For more than 1000 years, the Chinese have been eating hot pot. Some describe it as a kind of Asian fondue, with stock replacing the melted cheese, but that's fundamentally misleading. If you grew up in the 1970s, you will know cheese fondue as a once-fashionable and basically silly dish in which bits of bread and other things are dipped into cheese melted with kirsch and wine. Rich and messy, the only lasting impact this culinary flash-in-the-pan had was the greasy smear on your suede pants.
Chinese hot pot is a different matter altogether; it's a wonderful way of eating a range of spanking-fresh ingredients briefly cooked then flavoured to your exact liking.
No wonder it has endured.
The waiter at Gungahlin sees that we need a little help and explains how the process works, making it clear that for $26 an adult and $12 a child on the night we're there (more later in the week), we can order as much as we like and come back for seconds of anything. Fried starters are also included in the price, as is soft-serve ice-cream with jelly and toppings.
A pot of simmering stock is placed on an induction cooktop built into the middle of the table. At Gungahlin, you can choose from plain stock, stock flavoured with miso, tom yum, hot sate and pork bones. The big pots are divided into halves, so you can choose two stocks for each pot.
Once you have chosen the stock, a huge list of raw ingredients is presented, with little boxes next to each item and a pen to mark off the things you would like. Fish slices, oysters, wafer-thin slices of beef and pork, prawns, crab, squid and dumplings are all included. While you wait for your platters of raw ingredients, you visit the buffet and serve yourself from a dozen or so sauces, as well as greens, fungi, and tofu, to add to the meat and fish.
Once the raw ingredients arrive, you start the cooking process, popping them in piece by piece, or a whole lot at once, and scooping them out when they are cooked.
Traditionally, each piece is dipped in a favourite sauce before eating, but straight from the stock can work, too. It sounds fiddly, and it certainly requires attention, but the results are terrific - brilliantly fresh-tasting, and you can have exactly what you want.
Once all the meat and fish is gone, you can put in noodles and greens to round out the meal with a soup enriched with all the goodies that have been in and out of the pot.
The very basic wine list could supply a bottle if you didn't have time to bring your own, but most do, or drink tea or beer. Our tempranillo was a great choice with the food.
Because all the ingredients are raw and laid out for all to see, it's hard to cut corners with this kind of eating, and they don't try to here. With fried starters included in the price, it's easy to overindulge, but the hot pot is the star, so try not to waste too much space on average-quality spring rolls.
Now that the weather has turned, it's also worth noting what great winter eating this is, with hot pots warming both the room and your insides.
A great addition to Gungahlin, this is a good place to take the family or break the ice with new friends, offering a healthy, fun, all-you-can-eat night out.
Catriona Jackson is chief executive of peak lobby group Science and Technology Australia and a food writer.