"I'm in love with the..." New-ish spot near IAPM serving dank Hainan style hot pot. The gimmick actually works.
When SmartShanghai asked me to check out this new place getting popular on Dianping.com
, a coconut hotpot restaurant, with one of those terrible names -- Coconutalk
-- just begging to be lanced, I thought, "Great."
It’s been a while since I’ve been able to pop the novelty balloon. Just another one of the endless “new varieties” of hot pot, same as the old pot. Hot pot in paper, hot pot in cheese (properly called fondue), organic hot pot… They’ve all tried it on, with varying degrees of success. Coconut hot pot. What the hell.
So thinking coconut and hot pot, I invited a group of Singaporeans along. Maybe they’d had something like this before. They would know how to skewer it. It turns out they don’t have coconut hot pot in Singapore. So much for that idea. Coconut hot pot, if it’s a real thing and not a newly created dish, is from Hainan, we learn via the menu. But among my Singaporean table, there was more than one architect, and they quickly pointed out how many of the restaurant’s features were the same as Liquid Laundry
: the subway tiles, the "reclaimed" wood, the painted chains hanging from the ceiling. Also, the ceiling ductwork is well done, apparently.
I’ll kill this straw man right now. Coconutalk has all the trappings of a novelty but it’s very good. I like hot pot but I like it even more when you drink the soup at the end. I don’t do that if the soup is dishwater or covered in a centimeter of chili oil, so it limits the options. You can drink the soup here and it’s the best part. Because they start with coconut.
The main thing here is the chicken and coconut hot pot. Chickens from Wenchang in Hainan, which have that combination of being a little too chewy and a good amount more flavorful that says they are either old or they really are good free-range chickens, as the menu says, and are partially raised on coconut, Wikipedia says
. The menu says they are flown in from Hainan, as are a lot of the ingredients, but menus can say whatever they want.
So you get this flat-bottomed shallow pot on your table to start. There’s an induction in the middle. Standard 21st century hot pot. Except in the pan, there is only clear coconut water and strips of white coconut. One of the Singaporeans said it looked too clear to be just coconut water and must be diluted, but you can and should taste it straight from the pot when it comes to the table. There’s no raw chicken in it or anything. Coconut water and coconut. It’s sweet, tropical and a touch salty.
That was the major discrepancy to me. Coconut hotpot -- I was picturing regular hotpot, but the liquid replaced with coconut milk. Nope. That -- the coconut milk -- you can and should order separately because: there is still a layer of the fatty fragrant coconut cream on top when they bring it to the table and if you order a jug of it, they pour it into wine glasses like it’s some special occasion drink. Wonderful. We drank two jugs until someone asked, "Isn’t coconut a laxative?" and the someone’s wife had an early morning train to Hangzhou and so we switched to water.
A few minutes later, a whole chicken, head and feet but no guts, cut into thumb-sized piece but arranged back into chicken shape, comes to the table. This is your Wenchang chicken. You know it’s from Hainan because they have put, what else, coconut shavings on top of it. They scooch the chicken off the plate and into your pot of coconut water, turn it to a boil and tell you to cook it for exactly five minutes, which is easy to measure, because they give you an hourglass with orange sand that is calibrated to be exactly five minutes.
In the meantime, you do the sauce. You know how sometimes you meet a Chinese person and they’ve have French food like once in their life but are really quick to show off what they learned, and then they triumphantly reduce all of Western cooking to “it’s all about the sauce”? No it’s not. Hot pot is all about the sauce. The quality of the ingredients matter, the broth matters to the extent that it’s spicy (or not) and not overly monosodium glutamated, but any of the subtle differences are wiped out when you go from pot to sauce, even if it’s just sesame or peanut paste, vinegar and garlic, like some of the lamb places do. (I have never found the right place to mention this but here seems good enough. The two lamb places on Wulumuqi Lu near Fuxing Lu. The restaurants are grotty but I like them and I like their hand-cut lamb. But especially, I like the old lady who works at the southernmost one, because, when it’s been freshly dyed, her hair is the exact same magenta color as the fermented bean curd they put in the dipping sauce. It makes me wonder what she uses for hair dye.)
Coconut hotpot is especially about the sauce because it’s minimal but different. There is no condiment banquet. You get a dish of soy sauce, to which they add fresh chopped red chilies, diced sha jiang
, which is in the ginger family, and -- the kicker -- a squeeze from a small green orange. So simple, so transformative. Citrus in the sauce. It’s beautiful. That is 50% of this place’s appeal. It sounds small but it means much. It’s all about the sauce.
Coconutalk gives instructions about how to eat the chicken and all -- at this point, it’s just a diced chicken that’s been cooked in coconut water for five minutes -- and I suggest you follow it precisely, because this is the best part and the reason I’ll go back. Eat the chicken, dip it in the sauce, get that out of the way. The chicken itself is nice, the citrus-soy-sha jiang is great, but five minutes in coconut water has no lasting effect. Eat the chicken plain and you wouldn’t know. But -- and this was kind of a revelation for me -- the chicken isn’t the point. The broth is. The chicken is relatively fatty and five minutes in the bath is enough to release a lot of chicken fat and a little chicken flavor, and the broth you end up with is amazing -- sweet from the coconut, savory from the chicken, a tropical soup for the coming winter blues.
What you do after that doesn’t much matter. There are standard hot pot options with the fatty beef and pork belly and shrimp puree to scoop into the pot to make fresh shrimp balls. The fresh scallops are nice, especially at nine kuai each. The two things that stand out are the taro -- to round out the tropical Hainan theme -- and then bamboo pith mushrooms stuffed with tofu. It’s a real texture ingredient. It looks like Spanish chipirones, when they stuff baby squid with something -- it’s a unique mushroom and is more like a long stocking than the regular cap-and-stem thing. (If you are into fungus, as I am, it’s rather beautiful. What you’re eating is actually a lacy veil the mushroom makes
.) When it’s cooked, it has that perfectly Chinese texture of being cooked but still slightly crunchy, like wood-ear mushrooms. If you like that -- I do -- it’s worth ordering.
The reason I say to follow the instructions is that as all of the ingredients are swished and dunked, they inevitably change the flavor of the broth, which is inarguably at its best with just the chicken. The seaweed fucks up the broth the most. After we had been through a whole bunch of food, we ordered a second chicken and coconut hot pot just so we could get another bowlful of that five-minute broth. With a group, dinner ended up being about 130 rmb each.
This is not an endless pot of broth that is topped up with water. The Internet (maybe the menu) says they use the water from four fresh coconuts for the pot, and that’s not a lot. Plus you’re going to drink most of it as soup right away. You can top up with water (for free) but you can also top up with coconut water (for 22rmb), and given the theme, you should.
One of the other specialties here is sticky rice that has been steamed inside a coconut (I suspect with a measure of coconut milk but didn’t ask), cooled slightly, and then the coconut is split into quarters. This is nice. Like a coconut flavored zongzi
(no meat). Another is dessert, which is a small bowl of glistening mochi, as shiny and perfectly round as egg yolks, covered in a topping of crushed peanuts, dried coconut and sugar.
If you are over 30 and/or a man, you may feel awkward at Coconutalk. This restaurant is directly across from IAPM and one of those Fashion with a capital F restaurants aimed at the lady shoppers that own this area. (There is another one, an upmarket Sichuan BBQ done yakitori-style, down the street, that feels like a club. Tech-house and sofas. It’s the Lola
of Shanghai restaurants.) But they are harmless and are so busy staring into their WeChat they probably won’t even notice you.
It’s not often that Shanghai novelties turn out to be good or that hot pot finds a new path, even if it’s probably not meant for you. I don’t know if this is innovation or copying, to be honest, but I don’t much care. If they copied, at least they copied something worthwhile. It’s not what I expected to say, but Coconutalk is a novelty with legs.