Since Christmas I’ve been on a cooking-binge, making spatchcocked chickens, risottos and chillis, mostly from J Kenji Lopéz-Alt’s The Food Lab cookbook (which is quite brilliant). Even when things don’t turn out as brilliantly as they might if they’d been from a restaurant, there’s something very special about making your own food.
I think this is why I liked Shuang Shuang, a new Chinese hotpot restaurant on the edge of Chinatown, so much from the outset. The conveyor-belt did give me terrifying flashbacks to Yo! Sushi, which still feels like some of the most overpriced food I’ve ever had (even the tap water cost money, and there was a tap at the table), and I felt a bit anxious looking at the little plates of raw food circling around the restaurant.
Each diner at Shuang Shuang has at their place an individually-heated steel pot that keeps their broth warm, into which you’re supposed to drop some raw ingredients and let them cook for a while. Of the five broths, I chose the mala, made with dried chilis and numbing Sichuan peppercorns, which was surprisingly mild – I could have had it spicier, but last time I tried this broth at ‘authentic’ hotness (at Megan’s Kitchen in Hong Kong) I spent the rest of the day doubled over in pain, crying.
Despite being fairly mild, this was deeply flavoured and was quite delicious in its own right, not just as a cooking vessel for the food. The ‘sour’ lamb broth was also rich and delicious.
Alongside the broth was a trio of sauces (red beancurd paste, sesame butter and sha cha oil) and a bowl of chopped aromatics – chilis, coriander, garlic and so on – that we were supposed to mix up. These dipping sauces are apparently as important to hotpot as gravy is to Sunday roast, but I forgot about them for most of the meal. They did add something to the food, but weren’t essential by any means. Perhaps if they hadn’t been there I would be complaining that there was no sharpness to the food, or something.
Normally I accompany my reviews with photos of all or nearly all the food I ate. This time, I had my hands full. Eating at Shuang Shuang is a bit of work, because you end up cooking different things at the same time. Each dish has an advised cooking time (which erred a bit too much on the side of caution, if you ask me) and at any given time my pot usually had mushrooms, cabbage, beancurd ‘bows’ (highly recommended) and a few bits of meat as well.
The plates piled up, the broth was refilled, and I began to feel more and more like a steppe warlord enjoying himself after ravaging some little fishing village. The plates of food were small, but mostly reasonably priced, and part of the joy of the whole process was how much I savoured every bite. The most expensive blue plates are mostly missable – expensive cuts of beef and bits of fish are slightly lost on hotpot – and, unlike Yo! Sushi, there’s plenty of nice meat and fish at the lower price points.
Eventually the broth began to reduce down and the plates had piled up so high that I figured that I should leave. Our bill came to £69 for two, including service and two beers each. Not exactly cheap, but for the sort of cooking you simply cannot get for a mass audience anywhere else in London, worth it.
Maybe because I went in that interregnum between Christmas and New Year, maybe because the spice of the mala broth built up over the meal, maybe because the staff were chatty and sweet, but the overwhelming feeling I felt about Shuang Shuang was warmth: warming, simple, delicious food that mixes the flavours of a really good Chinese restaurant with the satisfaction that you can only really get from cooking for yourself at home. Some of the dishes were a little bland but on the whole it felt special, unique and bold, and something that I’ve found myself craving ever since.
Score: 〶 – one medals (for an explanation of our scoring system, see here).