211 La Trobe St Shop 313 Level 3 Melbourne Central
All. You. Can. Eat. Those four magical words are enough to convince me to eat at almost any establishment under the sun. Not that I’ve done any formal research but, I’m pretty sure Asians are predisposed towards buffets. I know I certainly am. After countless promises to myself to never eat all I can eat again, I always inevitably find myself drawn to the unlimited gluttony at a fixed price.
So it is with great glee that I walk with the rest of my family (who love buffets at least as much, if not more than me) into China Bar Shabu Shabu. We’ve been to its older sister, China Bar Signature, and loved it, so we were eager to see how the hot-pot variation stacks up. Walking past the outer a la carte section, we find ourselves in a much larger and airier space that overlooked the state library. The restaurant wasn’t bustling, but there were more than enough people for us to question whether or not we’ve made the right decision in coming here.
The idea behind shabu shabu is cooking plates of food in a boiling hot pot of stock right at your table, before dipping it into various sauces. There was a choice of 5 soup bases – tom yum, Szechuan spicy soup, chicken soup, Chinese herbal soup, and satay soup, out of which we chose chicken and Chinese herbal. Unbelievably enough, I forgot to take a picture of the actual soup, but they came out clear and lovely, and there was a promising variety of different Chinese herbs floating in each half of the pot. When I tasted the soup a little later on, they had reduced right down to become milky and fragrant, especially the Chinese herbal soup, which tasted richly of pork bones cooked for hours, cut through by the slightly medicinal undertone of the herbs used. Two thumbs up for the soup bases!
There was an almost mind-boggling variety of dipping sauces to choose from. They sat in small vats in the buffet section, and we were free to try as many as possible. Off the top of my head, I recall there being garlic chive, sweet chilli, sweet thai, preserved beancurd, satay, chilli oil sauce, sesame, and strangely enough, thousand island dressing. There was also soy sauce, vinegar, and oil for those who want a more simple sauce. None of the sauces really stood out for me, but I did have fun trying out just about every kind of sauce there was.
And now, we come to the all you can eat segment. 3 plates of frozen lamb slices were plonked onto our tables at the beginning, and after that, we were free to wander off and grab whatever took our fancies.
There were 2 refrigerating units full of raw and cooked food for us to dip into our soups, as well as a whole cabinet dedicated entirely to dessert.
The first cabinet was where the meat is. The beef loin was tough once cooked but the chicken breast was juicy and tender.
Aside from beef and chicken, there was also a mind-boggling selection of stuff-on-skewers. There was everything from fish balls to lobster balls to beef balls to stuffed beancurd to Japanese fish slices, most of which tasted predictably pleasant. And for the more adventurous, there was also jellyfish, tripe, and congealed ox blood. The fresh vegetables sitting at the bottom were largely ignored by our carnivorous family.
Cabinet two consisted of mostly vegetarian goodies. Instead of stuff-on-skewers this time, it was the variety of mushrooms that blew our minds. And mum had about two plates of each kind. There were also the hotpot staples of beancurd, seaweed, corn, and a variety of noodles.
There was also a small selection of dim sims for us to tackle. Prawn dumplings, sui mai, custard buns, shark fin dumplings and the like were a bit gluggy from sitting in the steamers for so long, but were generally of good quality. And naturally, there are spring rolls and fried wontons to satisfy your deep fried cravings.
Finally. Dessert. Pictured above is a small jelly cup with fruit, a sliver of passionfruit cheesecake, and a mini éclair. I think the contents of this plate summed up the whole dessert bar in general – it is neither remarkably bad nor remarkably good. It was sufficient to satisfy those with a sweet tooth at the end of a meal. The real hero however, was the black glutinous rice soup. Red beans floated in a sweet purple syrup that had a hint of coconut to it, and the chewy grains of black glutinous rice made this dessert soup incredibly moreish. I went back for thirds.
For the health-conscious, there’s also a selection of fresh fruit, including orange, rockmelon and honeydew melon. Dad went back for thirds.
And for the not-so-health-conscious, a freezer full of those dollar ice creams you find at Chinese grocers await. My sister went back for thirds.
We had a fairly pleasant experience overall, so it was a shame that there was a small hiccup when we went to pay. We found that we were charged extra for the soup base, as well as the plates of lamb that were placed onto our table at the beginning of the meal. It wasn’t so much the extra cost that annoyed us, but the fact that we weren’t told about it initially. Minus one for service. As for everything else, I’ll admit that there are worse ways to spend 20 dollars (23 if you want to count the surcharge for the soup), but I won’t deny that I’d much rather spend it on something else. Maybe lunch at China Bar Signature?
Rating: 12/20 – could be worse