Food, like travel, broadens your horizons. And none more than that served up in the Steamboat Chinese restaurant on Belfast's Donegall Pass.
The central south city street has been a budding mini-Chinatown for two or three decades now – the famous Sun Kee was here for years and there are still a few others on the Pass – but, despite healthy numbers of second- and third-generation Chinese people in the city and across Northern Ireland, it never really built up enough critical mass to qualify.
But this doesn't mean Belfast's offering of Chinese food is weak. Last week I was in Mandarin City, on the Newtownards Road, which most people in east Belfast hold up as the holy grail of Chinese culinary excellence. It was good in a very conventional way – no surprises, plenty of big flavours, things fried in super-light salty, crispy batters and so on. A review will be coming along shortly. All Seasons on Botanic Avenue and Macau on the Ormeau Road are particularly good and reliable too.
But the Steamboat is another experience altogether. For a start, it's always packed with cool young Chinese and during the World Police and Fire Games last week it became an unofficial base for the teams from Beijing and Shanghai.
The Steamboat offers a hotpot/barbecue combo for £16.88. Why they didn't go the 2p extra and make it £16.90 – this is the Donegall Pass, where the cultural reference wouldn't go unnoticed – I can't imagine. But for £16.88 you get an all-you-can-eat, do-it-yourself-barbecue-poached-hotpot of fish, marinated pork, chicken, beef, vegetables, noodles and rice.
For first-timers, as the adviser and I were, it can be tricky to understand what you're meant to do. Each table has a built-in hotplate, one at each setting, and a central barbecue steel bowl under which the fire rages or gently flickers – you can control the heat, just like a cooker.
So for first-timers, here's what you do: you will be asked if you want very mild, mild, spicy or hot broth. This broth is the stock in which you can poach some dumplings or prawns or vegetables, so choose cautiously. You put it on the hot plate where you can set it to simmer – as the night goes on they will top it up with stock.
I stupidly went for the last in the list, not thinking that anyone would provide a broth too painful to eat. But this was hot enough to start a nuclear reaction and, lips on fire and eyes watering, I asked contritely if they might change it to something less combative.
Once this was sorted (with a gracious but knowing smile – another tube trying to act the big lad and then humiliating himself) the night worked itself out very nicely.
The next step is to walk over to the workman-like self-service buffet in the corner of the restaurant. This was packed with everything you'd want in a Chinese: the head-on tiger prawns, chicken meat marinating in blackbean sauce, pork and beef strips and lots of pak choi and other Chinese greens, scallions, mushrooms, beansprouts and a rainbow of sauces. The rice is brought to your table, so if you want noodles you'll get them at the buffet to poach in the broth for a minute or two.
If all this sounds too much like hard work, it's not. What actually happens is you put your items on the barbie or in the broth and the act of doing this creates a social interchange, a moment of ice-breaking fun which you might experience at a fondue. Large groups enjoy the hands-on DIY element.
In fact, it's the perfect platform for a courting couple where one can impress the other, or both bond over their collective clumsiness. In this case, the adviser had mastered the concept within 45 seconds. Had it not been for her, I'd have nuked myself, barbecued my own hand and sustained third-degree boil burns. In the eventuality, I ended up unharmed and well fed.
Still, there is a menu of cooked dishes and I noticed many of the Chinese customers were going for the lazier options, ordering great big bowls of food to share. There are plenty of unusual as well as conventional choices: crispy chilli tofu, Szechuan ravioli, steamed scallops and loads of vegetarian curries, and stir fries.
Service is charming and helpful, patient and wise. Nobody who works there appears older than about 20, but they are polished and attentive.
One of the lasting memories I'll take from the Steamboat is a fabulous watermelon juice they serve in frozen, frosty pint mugs. Just what's needed at the end of all the heat and excitement.
Hotpot BBQ buffet x 2 £33.76
Tiger beer x 2 £6.60
Large watermelon juice £3.80
In our review of Amici restaurant in Belfast last week we stated that it was closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. We wish to point out that the restaurant is open 7 days a week.