Not so Hot Pot

When it’s cold outside, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be than in an all-you-can-eat restaurant, so warm its windows are fogged up.

Or so I thought.

Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot (1344 Bank St.) just opened at Bank and Riverside, and some friends and I went to check it out. Upon entering, we were hit with a wall of aroma, a complex layer of savoury scents. We weren’t sure what we were smelling, but we were hungry, and eager to chow down.

The place was hopping. During our hour-long wait, the manager appeased us with “Chinese desserts”. These were little balls with sweet sesame paste in the centre, rolled in a coating of whole sesame seeds. The starchy, gooey texture with a subtle crunch was odd, but a welcome surprise.

After unsuccessful waiting games of I-Spy and Movie-Star-Movie, number 32 was called – our table was ready. We were led to a speedily-wiped table, slick with moisture from either cleaning cloths or the latest occupants’ soup broth.

We ordered two pots of half mild, half spicy broth. The dinner special included delicately sliced beef, lamb and chicken, an array of many exotic foods I’d never heard of, and a selection of 9 different bottomless beverages.

I was parched and scrambled up from the table, glass in hand. I’d had my eye on the red juice fountain since we walked in. The flavour was sickeningly sweet and decidedly strawberry. Not thirst-quenching in the least, but what did I really expect from vivid red juice? Water would be my next pick.

Our sweaty server soon arrived with the soups and sliced meats. He turned the tabletop burners on, and soon the broths were bubbling away. The soups were teeming with garlic cloves, ginger, peppercorns, and chopped red chilies, among other unfamiliar pods and berries.

With the bovine and ovine slices already on our table, the glowing green refrigerators beckoned to us, their trays full of curious morsels. The familiar (broccoli, baby bok choy, yams) sat alongside the mysterious (cloud ear fungus, kelp, quail eggs and lotus roots). Shiny flat and vermicelli rice noodles seemed dull next to a cheery trio of white, yellow and green Shanghai style noodles.

The ungarnished trays looked appetizing only when brimming. Pools of leftover liquid in neglected and emptying trays were a turnoff.

Plates piled high, and armed with wooden chopsticks, we dunked our choices into the gurgling pots. The meats took less time than expected – only 30 seconds for a tender bite. The spicy soup was sour, with a zing of heat. The mild soup was salty at first taste, yet complex herbal flavours soon emerged.

The soups truly were the “highlight” of the meal – we spent more time with our faces in a pot instead of enjoying each other’s company.

By all-you-can-eat standards, my portions were meager. It wasn’t because I didn’t like the food. After my first plate, I felt like I’d had enough. The bright fluorescent lights, the heady steam wafting up from every direction, watching a friend’s raw squid jiggle its way into the boiling potion – I felt totally overwhelmed.

I stepped out for some air. Everyone at the table must also have had their fill, because when I returned, the table was cleared, and they were ready to go.

This place is not for the faint of heart. The food is tasty and unusual for a meat-and-potatoes palate, yet the atmosphere, presentation, and overall tidiness of the spot is seriously lacking. The restaurant is a welcome addition to Ottawa’s food scene, but these kinks must be worked out.

As my friends and I returned into the cold, tummies full and our clothes smelling of soup, we all agreed on one thing: Mongolian Hot Pot was an experience.

However, not an experience that I wish to repeat.

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