You don't need a culinary degree to prepare your own meal at Hartford's hot-pot destination, just a sense of adventure.
HAN Restaurant, which opened in July in the former Damon's Tavern space on Prospect Avenue, brings the unique dining option to central Connecticut. Hot pot takes on many forms across Asian cuisines, but it's generally an interactive experience, where diners cook their own raw meats, seafood and vegetables in a bubbling pot of soup base.
Like fondue, hot pot is often a social gathering of a meal, as guests share communal pots and a selection of items to cook.
"In China, hot pot is about getting together, bringing friends closer," says Sophie Fu, business operations manager for Dynasty Cuisine Group. The restaurant group also encompasses the Shu restaurants in West Hartford and Fairfield, owned by husband and wife Xingyu Huang and Sally Zhu.
Through a translator, Huang explains that while he was in the process of opening Shu in West Hartford, he recognized the need for hot pot in Connecticut. The cuisine is rare here and much more common in big cities, and diners looking for the experience often had to travel to Boston or New York. Once Shu opened in the Shield Street Plaza in October 2014, customers began to ask for hot pot, and Huang realized the interest and market were there.
At HAN, diners are seated at tables equipped with electric burners. Pots of soup are delivered to the tabletop, and they're kept warm on the temperature-controlled burners throughout the meal as guests play chef.
HAN offers a classic hot-pot setup, a shared pot with one, two or four flavors of soup ($24.95 to $39.95,) and also a minipot option ($5.95) for individuals. Guests are encouraged to build their meal with a variety of meats (beef, lamb, pork, chicken, Chinese sausage), fish and seafood (flounder, shrimp, clam, squid), tofu, vegetables and optional noodle or rice additions, priced a la carte by portion.
The menu's eight soup bases feature broths with mushrooms, pickled vegetables, spices and herbs, and run the gamut from mild to fiery. The Chengdu hot and spicy variety lives up to its name, producing the telltale tongue-tingling, numbing burn from Szechuan peppercorns.
For hot-pot beginners, servers suggest the $18.95 mini hotpot combo, Fu says, with one choice of soup base, two protein selections and an assortment of vegetables, like broccoli, spinach, bok choy, lotus root or snow peas.
Before the experience starts, diners are encouraged to visit the dipping sauce bar, featuring more than a dozen options such as peanut sauce, oyster sauce, sesame oil, garlic paste, cilantro and scallions to further enhance the flavors of cooked items. Guests can mix, match and customize, Fu says. "It's part of the fun."
Once the soup starts boiling, it's time to cook. HAN provides instructions and guidelines on preferred cooking times and techniques associated with each category of items. Meats are thinly sliced, and only need to spend a few minutes in the swirling broth. Poultry, seafood and certain vegetables may take longer.
If you doubt your cooking skill, or just want someone else to do the preparation, HAN also offers several fried rice and lo mein dishes ($8.99 and $9.99) and appetizers ($3 to $7) like crispy fried chicken wings, scallion pancakes, dumplings, wontons, edamame and spring rolls.
The 150-seat space is dark and alluring, with black leather booths and chairs and touches of traditional Chinese decor, including hand-carved wooden furniture pieces. A private room with several cooking tables is available for parties.
HAN has received an enthusiastic response in its first months of operation, Fu says, even drawing diners from Fairfield and New Haven. With a dedication to traditional Chinese and Szechuan ingredients and flavor profiles, the team expected to see a lot of Asian diners who have experience with the hot-pot cuisine, but they've been surprised to see American visitors making up about half the clientele.
"We realize that if we stick to the authentic Chinese ways, they're actually very, very flavorful and Americans respond to them very well," she says.
HAN RESTAURANT, 310 Prospect Ave., Hartford, is open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. 860-216-5726, hanrestaurantusa.com.