Restaurant review: Pot Luck: Pricey Secret Vessel Fills the Chinese Hot Pot Niche
How much would you spend to cook your own dinner? If about $30 sounds reasonable and you possess fundamental kitchen skills, then you can have fun at Secret Vessel Hot Pot Restaurant, an unusual newcomer to Old North.
Hot pot cuisine - in which diners fashion meals by dunking uncooked meats, vegetables, noodles and more into gurgling broths and then dipping sauces - is popular in many parts of Asia. If you've ever had sukiyaki or ordered raw beef in your pho, then you've had a taste of hot pot.
Because Secret Vessel is rather expensive and offers only labor-intensive Chinese-style hot pot, it doesn't seem like an easy sell. During several visits, though, the little place stayed fairly busy with people clearly having a good time - and their high spirits weren't aided by get-high spirits, as alcohol isn't available.
No, it likely has something to do with the social nature of this type of meal. Although you can dine alone, and people do, sharing hot pot at Secret Vessel engenders a teamwork mentality reminiscent of a dinner party.
The restaurant is far from fancy, but decorative calligraphy, botanical sketches plus contemporary American and Asian pop played at celebratory levels contribute to a festive mood. Still, the center of every diner's attention will be the center of every table, where an induction burner awaits next to a ladle and large, slotted spoon.
After your server turns on the burner, you must decide whether to build your dinner from a la carte items or get a combo meal for two ($55), four ($99), six ($150) or eight ($196). You'll also need to select a broth ($8 to $9).
Four soup bases are offered. Signature is light and chicken-based, with hints of onion and mushroom. Satay is gently redolent of seafood. But Sichuan, rife with chilies and Sichuan peppercorns in oil, and Tomato, tangy and a bit gingery, were the most flavorful of the bunch and were my favorites.If you find it hard to choose one, Secret Vessel offers pots with multiple sections that allow the use of two ($10) or four soups ($13) to cook your food.
What foods will you cook? If choosing a la carte, I'd skip the odd and highly processed Hong Kong sausage ($6.29) and "beef balls" ($7) in lieu of the delicate and housemade chicken balls ($8) and shrimp balls ($9) and the wide vegetable selection. But the well-designed combo options are your easiest and best bets.
The recommended combo for two is a lot of food. A shelved cart is brought tableside with serving platters brimming with attractive ingredients that require individual timing strategies; this can be tricky, especially if the burners have "hot spots" - as mine did - which caused broths to boil unevenly. But with intermittent pot rotations, the close cooperation of my dining partner, and our long experience as decent home cooks, we soon gained control over the situation.
The combo came with components that worked great in this format. Sliced potatoes, Asian pasta noodles, bundles of enoki mushrooms and "bean curd sheets" (like fat noodles) each took about five minutes to cook in rapidly boiling broth. Carpaccio-like raw beef slices cooked in five seconds. Melon-like "white gourd" absorbed a lot of boiling-hot broth (be careful), and leaves of Napa cabbage wilted in a minute or two.
Now toss in a couple sodas, access to an array of dipping sauces and garnishes (servers will help here) such as peanut-buttery sesame sauce, black vinegar, garlic, cilantro, fermented bean curd and chili oil, and I wound up with a good time and a good meal.
But not a very good deal.
Secret Vessel Hot Pot Restaurant
2620 N. High St., Old North