100 Victoria St Carlton, VIC 3053
|Opening hours||Lunch Sat-Thu 11.30am-2pm; Daily dinner 5pm-11pm|
|Features||Groups, Licensed, Accepts bookings, Vegetarian friendly|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9888 9899|
They say you have to be crazy to go into hospitality. For some operators, crazy is their stock in trade. It was true of Tikki and John Newman, theatre restaurant royalty who founded Dracula's, where for 37 years you could get dinner and a ghoulish show that began with a ride on a ghost train.
It was a tragic day when the nail was put in its coffins, albeit a boon for the eccentric souls (and one enthusiastic gun collector) who bought all the creepy loot. So Melbourne was chuffed to hear that its replacement, a Sichuan hot pot chain promising traditional Chinese performances including "panda shows", would keep the dream alive.
The Panda Hot Pot conglomerate is a big deal, comprising 400 outlets worldwide. The site on Victoria Street, neatly positioned between the uni and proposed station, was bought for $10.4 million. Even more has been spent fitting out the double-decker restaurant of 228 seats.
LCD panels turn the ceiling to sky, beneath which floats a 1.5 tonne steel dragon. There are carved stone pavers underfoot, gold panels everywhere.
Such a huge investment spoke of high confidence. How could they go wrong?
As planned, Panda opened to sizeable queues in December. Hot pot was emerging as the next big thing, and with its shows, which are a free bonus, its offering is unique.
Then January hit, and like Chinese restaurants everywhere, business has been hammered by fear surrounding the COVID-x virus, and travel bans. More than 100,000 Chinese students, who drive Carlton's dining economy (and were certainly Panda's target market), are stuck overseas.
I wanted to cover Panda now to give it a needed push. I'm glad I did, but with full disclosure, because this disaster isn't without its effects. I visit for their supper session, 9pm, and there's no show. It's late, but I'd believed there would be acts at each sitting. Friends tell me on their visit, menu items are out of stock.
Speaking with management, they confess that over the past three weeks, they went from serving more than 400 people a day to 120. Two weeks ago, they also had to close lunch service, lay off 25 workers and four chefs.
Entertainment was also scaled back to one performance at 7pm. Then came a rogue busy night which saw them short-staffed and missing product as they hadn't had the confidence to restock.
But here's the good news: despite not seeing a changing face dance, Panda delivered a fun night I can fully support. The Sichuan broth, roiling beneath a crimson spill of fizzing chilli-laden liquor gives the right kind of kick. There is a milder pork bone broth you can get for balance (there is also a vegan mushroom or tomato option).
The 60-plus dunkables include deboned duck feet and premium beef cuts tenderised in milk, dried balloon flowers, crunchy lotus root and tender seaweed. There's a further build-your-own-condiment bar with 20 options from green onions to house-made oyster sauce and pungent chilli mash-ups. The ridiculous room alone makes dining here an event.
Service? Sometimes it's all on top of you, other times, you're left to figure things out, but the beauty of these big operations is in its systems. Your menu is both ordering form and guide, dictating how to order and the exact number of seconds each item should be dunked for premium performance.
For tongue (one for advanced players), which emerges as thin, grey budded sheets stretched over ice, five seconds is the rule, so it emerges cooked, but not shrunk to a rubber band. If you go the duck feet, leave them for 12 minutes. Phones double as timers and content managers.
Speaking of, they sweat the presentation, with fungi combinations (enoki, shiitake, king brown slices and oysters) coming out looking like a floral bouquet. Premium meats are dropped in a treasure chest of crushed ice. Mashed prawn is half spiced and presented as a yin yang, so you can scoop spoonfuls of the meat in to make wrapper-free dumplings.
Drinks? Wines are either basic, or, Penfolds 389. Beers (Asahi, Tsingtao, cider) do include Corona if you're hanging to make the joke. But there are also well-loved soft options such as Wong Lo Kat, sweet, black iced tea. Or Wang Zai milk, the unfortunately translated "want want hot kid milk drink" that has the custardy vibe of evaporated milk.
Even at its most scaled back, Panda ticks more hot pot boxes than most. Dessert of fryer-puffed rice balls are chewy soft and sharpened by mollases-like brown sugar syrup. Ordering more than our group can handle, plus drinks, comes to less than $50 a head. That means things can only get better – just as long as we show up.
Vegetarian Plenty of options, if your friends don't dip into your vego soup
Drinks Basic Chinese beers, spirits and non-alcoholic drinks, plus premium Penfolds
Pro Tip: Performances will increase as customers do.
Go-to Dish: Prawn smash ($14.80; 3 minutes).