Little Lamb… and huge portions

A rare opportunity to have dinner with my mum in London beckoned this week and it was the perfect opportunity to visit Chinatown. I like to try something new each time I visit so we decided this was the perfect chance to sample ‘hot pot’ at Little Lamb on Shaftesbury Avenue.

For those of you who haven’t tried this delight, hot pot is the Chinese equivalent of fondue where you dip small portions of meat, fish or vegetables in steaming hot stock to cook it at the table, eating as you go. Also known as ‘steamboat’ or ‘shabu shabu’, it is a fantastically sociable eating experience as you congregate around a steaming pot of stock and pass plates of deli-thin meats and tantalising seafood around, soaking up the smells and aromas as you eat.

At Little Lamb, they offer a set menu at £20 a head incorporating a stock pot (of at least two flavours) and 5 meat, fish or vegetable dishes per person. We marvelled at the sheer number of dishes on the tick menu and settled on pork, lamb, crab, prawn, squid and fishballs with needle mushrooms, pea shoots, soft noodles and wax gourd to accompany them. We ordered a couple of Tsing Tsao beers and waited to see what would happen…

Firstly a cauldron of three stocks arrived. It was split into hot and spicy, herbal and mushroom and was set on an induction hob in the centre of the table to heat up to high temperatures before the food arrived. As far as I could establish all the stocks are meat free so this is an equally enjoyable meal for vegetarians if you choose from the extensive selection of tofu and vegetables on the list.

We thought we had done quite well with our vegetable options, so we were slightly taken aback to see two platters of wafer thin lamb and pork arrive, shortly followed by a mountain of squid pieces and a plate with at least 10 shell and head-on raw prawns and 5 or 6 quarters of crab. Our waitress was already struggling to find room for everything on the table when she came back with dishes heaped with our pea shoots, noodles, mushrooms and gourd. Our set meal for two looked more like a banquet.

It was hard to know where to start due to the choice of delicacies on the table, the different flavours of stock and not knowing how long things would take to cook. We both managed to go for squid first; my mum in the spicy stock and myself in the herbal. I found my squid soft and tender, but mildly flavoured. My mum obviously found her squid much spicier as she then spent the next ten minutes coughing and spluttering as the broth took her unawares.

Light choking aside, everything went down very well. The pork and lamb were surprisingly meaty despite being such tiny slivers. The crab and prawns were sweet and succulent (if a little to cool and eat on such small serving dishes). The fishballs were deliciously yielding and moreish with a salty savoury aftertaste. The squid cooked in a trice and there wasn’t even a hint of rubberiness to it, making it very chopstick friendly.

The non meat dishes were a revelation. For years the sight of enoki or needle mushrooms has given me the heebie-jeebies, yet blanched in the umami lusciousness of the mushroom broth, they turned out to be like soft succulent, yet rich noodles I couldn’t get enough of. The pea shoots were sweet and crunchy, going beautifully with the seafood and lifting the richness of the meat. The wax gourd was spectacular, similar in texture to melon with the light crisp summery taste of a cucumber which imparted a freshness to the stock and absorbed its flavours as it cooked. I could have eaten twice the number of slices they brought to the table without even blinking.

In fact, everything was so good we had no problem powering through the full plates. Everything is such a perfectly sized mouthful, very fresh and tasty, without excess oil or fat, but well-flavoured from the stock that it is very easy eating. Being able to vary from the powerfully spicy, the mild herbal or the rich savouriness of the mushroom stocks keeps each mouthful interesting and exciting no matter how full you think you are getting.

Finally though we cleared the last scrap from the plates, sat back from the pungent aromas and steam of the stockpot, savoured our cold beers and surveyed our work with pride. We had a satisfyingly large pile of pink prawn shells and slightly forlorn looking crab legs in front of us and not much else, bar the smell of stock and meat in our hair and clothes and a happily full belly to show for such a feast. It was hard to believe we had had so much meat and seafood for £40 plus a few Tsing Tsaos.

The restaurant was still thriving when we left just after 9 o’clock, as it had been the whole time we were there. We ate upstairs in a functional dining room with little noise, just some muted Mandarin and Cantonese conversation floating around us, as people concentrated on devouring the mounds of superb food in front of them. It was a surprisingly calm environment, with unobtrusive waiting staff and a laid back atmosphere. An early weeknight evening would be the perfect time to bring kids to enjoy cooking their own food as they go, but I have a feeling this place is raucous on a weekend night, so leave the youngsters at home then!

We rolled gently home after our meal carrying the smells of our stockpot in our hair and clothes and genuine enjoyment in our tummies. I don’t recommend Little Lamb before going anywhere else due to the portions and the hands on method of eating, but I do recommend you visit as soon as possible. Where else in London can you play with your food all night and feast handsomely to your heart’s content for such small prices?

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