Tom is won over by the warming goodness of a communal Sichuan dining tradition.
It’s a family ritual as smooth and polished as a river pebble, one of those rare places where culinary differences are put aside and harmony rules OK. Because we all agree that Shu Xiang Ge Hot Pot – perched at the top of West London’s Goldhawk Road – will never let you down.
So we troop, as always, into that bright, clean room, and sit down at a table by the window. I take the small pencil and tick those boxes on the paper menu, choosing our cooking broth, what will go into it, and things to have on the side. We know exactly what we want and while seasons may change, the song remains eternally the same.
A few minutes of delectable anticipation, before the great silver hotpot is fitted into its special indentation, and the induction heater turned on. A thin metal sheet divides the liquids. On one side, chicken broth, pale, fragrant and light, with plump red dates and tiny goji berries.
This is soothing, gently savoury, medicinal stuff, in contrast to its neighbour, a seething, blood-red beef fat Sichuan inferno, livid with dried chillies and enough Sichuan pepper to numb the tongues of the entire Terracotta Army. It’s yin and yang, pleasure and pain, happy heaven and delectable hell.
As blip blip turns to hubble bubble, the real fun begins. Oyster mushrooms, bean curd skin and squidgy prawn balls go in first, ready when they float to the top. Fat beef is wrapped around pickled chillies and needs only a second or two, just like the tissue-paper-thin slices of Iberico pork and rib-eye beef, the latter served on a mound of ice. Swish swish, then into lettuce leaves, with more chillies, a jolt of vinegar and garlic mashed in sesame oil.
There’s offal too (beef tendon, duck stomach, three kinds of tripe and two sizes of brain is just the start), but I’ve yet to convince the children of the textural joys found on the menu’s wilder shores. Hey ho.
By now, my lips tingle, my tongue throbs and my brow is beaded with sweat. The children revel in my pain. But the best is still to come, a bowl or two of those broths, lustily slurped, now containing echoes of everything cooked within. This is messy, joyous, life-affirming eating. And proof of the eternal appeal of the communal pot.
About £30 per head. Shu Xiang Ge Hot Pot, 10-12 Goldhawk Road, London W12; shuxiangge.uk.
DRINKS: Olly’s Aussie reds for autumn
This month I tasted the Penfolds range of wines with Chief Winemaker Peter Gago via Zoom from Australia. It was a stunning line-up and reminded me why my first wine love, Australian Shiraz, is the perfect red for autumn. With smoky flourishes, Shiraz is lush with dark, delicious fruit that’s silkier than a mulberry in Lycra. Happily Australia has a bunch of decent drops for spicing up these cooler days.
WINE OF THE WEEK SPECIALLY SELECTED SOUTH AUSTRALIA SHIRAZ 2019 (14.5%), £5.99, Aldi. At the price, this winner will transform your wine glass into a goblet of glory.
JAM SHED SHIRAZ 2020 (13.5%), £7.75, Morrisons. For a crowd-pleaser, this sweet, gluggable red is a no-brainer bargain.
BERTON VINEYARD THE BLACK SHIRAZ 2020 (14.5%), £8.25, Co-Op. Full throttle bottle! An opulent, excellent-value red with a memorable label, too.
CHATEAU TANUNDA GRAND BAROSSA SHIRAZ 2019 (14.9%), £15, Sainsbury’s. Massive red with the spice of a peppercorn the size of Mars. Warming, bold.
PENFOLDS BIN 28 KALIMNA SHIRAZ 2017 (14.5%), Majestic, £24.99. Luscious red with fully laden black fruit and liquorice layers. Sumptuous and iconic.