With robot waiters circling the dining room handing out mints to diners, and Barbie dolls wrapped in wagyu reminiscent of Lady Gaga’s meat dress, Spice World is certainly an eye-catching operation.
The Sydney branch of this Chinese chain of spicy Sichuan hot pot restaurant hovers one level above Sussex Street, accessed via an escalator behind a check in desk.
The colour theme is red and black, with bold patterns and a strong sense of design.
Concrete grey walls reflect Chinese characters up onto mirrored ceilings in the entrance-way.
In the dining room proper, black steamer basket lids and red paper lanterns create a dazzling lid to your cooking operations, illuminated by cleverly disguised spotlights shining down onto each table.
Transparent red doors take you through to private dining rooms, where you can slurp your way through your hot pot experience with only your friends to laugh at your disposable Do Not Disturb bib (an essential part of the Spice World experience).
The real attraction at Spice World though is the staff – never before have I felt so ‘invited in’ to a hot pot dining experience. From the second we sat down, the young and friendly black-clad floor team were ready to guide and help us through the dining experience.
From an opening plate of peanuts, cucumber sticks and black fungus to see us through ordering, to operating our induction cook top, to showing us what to take with us when we left to pay, the floor staff provided helpful and anticipatory service.
Once you’ve made your menu selections, your first stop should be the sauce station.
Take a small bowl from under the sauces and mix up a storm using more than twenty different potted ingredients, with black vinegar, soy and sugar to balance. While some ingredients, like 'Devil Sproul Sauce' might be unfamiliar, if you don’t fancy experimentation you can always follow the printed menu cards overhead for a tried and true combination.
At the other end of the long dining room, there’s a snack bar offering up plates of fruit and other nibbles.
While they’re probably intended as dessert, I found the juicy, pink watermelon slices gave my palate a nice rest from my spicy hot pot, so punctuated my meal with eating them.
Hot pots at Spice World either come as single serves or as communal affairs. We opt to go it alone, which for me means the Spicy Soup with Chilli Butter ($9.90) at the lowest (single) chilli level (which is actually quite spicy).
My dining companion opted for a yin yang Double Soup ($12.90) featuring the traditional spicy broth at two chilli strength on one side, and a more soothing wild mushroom broth on the other.
While our pots get underway, in the beverage department Tsing Tao ($7.90) is still my hot pot favourite, though my burning mouth here was actually best remedied by shots of Jiangxiaobai ($19.90/100ml), a Chinese white spirit. With funky packaging aimed at more youthful drinkers, the little bottle of baijiu drinks like vodka with a slight petrochemical edge.
It worked better than my virgin Lemon Mojito ($6.90) plucked from the colourful menu of drinks delivered by hand from The Moment on the other side of Sussex Street.
Our eyes are caught by a metre-long wooden plank bearing neatly curled slices of lamb that arrives at the next table.
Before we can get too envious, our own table becomes covered with food. Wagyu Beef Dressed Barbie ($38.90) makes her grand entrance, draped in thin slices of wagyu that take about fifteen seconds to cook in your bubbling hot pot. Thicker things like Sweet Potato Noodles ($5.90) can take about five minutes to cook, but give a wonderfully silky, soup-drenched mouthful that rewards the effort.
In a beautiful, ice-filled bucket Mashed Shrimp with Fish Roe ($16.90) was the most exciting soup ingredient we chose, though when it arrived, we had absolutely no clue about how to go about eating it. Our server was quick to step in and demonstrate how to spoon off dumpling sized portions of the prawn paste mixture into the boiling soup. They rise to the surface after about two minutes, and go down a treat with my sesame oil, soy and vinegar-based dipping sauce.
The same sauce also suited the Onyx Seafood Dumplings ($15.90) that arrive frozen, so take a good five minutes to thaw and heat properly in your soup.
Bamboo Fungus ($8.90) is more about texture than flavour. Be warned: it's good at delivering a good portion of steaming soup, but then again, so were the rolls of Fried Bean Curd Sheet ($6.90), and I liked the flavour of them better.
Skip over individual vegetables and opt for the Vegetable Combo. ($17.90). Beautifully arranged in a woven basket so it looks like the work of a market gardener bringing their excess crops to sell, this item takes care of all your vegetable needs.
You'll find everything from greens to slabs of potato and sweet potato, tofu and seaweed knots, and black fungus, meaning you don’t have to order any of these items separately like we foolishly did with a surplus-to-needs plate of Wild Black Fungus ($6.90).
Most guests seem to be more interested in meat. The Spice World selection goes all the way up to the top-of-the-line Kagoshima A5 Wagyu Striploin ($98.90/100g). We selected the Special Spicy Beef Slices ($15.90) because they were more in our price range, and given the context of such a hectic spicy soup, there are arguments against the utility of dropping so much coin on a more premium product.
While our feast set us back just over two hundred dollars for two people, the opportunity cost of adding extra diners would be relatively low. Ingredients like Quail Eggs ($6.90) are predicated on four people, so consider dining as a party of four or more. What I can definitely assure you, is that all your guests will be made to feel welcome in this funky, sparkling clean setting, where staff literally leap to serve you.
Level 1, 405- 411 Sussex Street, Sydney
Ph: (02) 9211 1515