|A prime short rib combination hot pot with mala broth (left) and black chicken bone broth. (Erik Jacobs for The Boston Globe)|
Q takes the hot pot uptown
Move from Quincy brings new cuisines, new elegance
The Mongolian hot pot restaurant Little Q opened in Quincy in 2006, a bastion of authenticity. Its logo, an adorably wide-eyed and grinning cartoon lamb, mimicked that of the popular Chinese hot pot chain Little Sheep. The intended audience would get the reference.
The restaurant was big and basic. Pots bubbled at each station, people slurped from plastic spoons, the lights were so bright they practically buzzed, and the plump little lamb smiled down at everyone, beatific. Then the city announced plans for a new route through downtown. The mall that housed Little Q would be knocked down.
This was a blow for owners Ming Zhu, Don Xu, and Jimmy Ni, who had put their resources into the place after signing a 19-year lease. It was a blow, too, for those who had become hooked on their complex broths and fresh ingredients. Little Q was the best hotpot around.
The owners reached a settlement with the city last year and opened a smaller, quieter restaurant in Arlington. Then, in October, they debuted Q Restaurant in Chinatown. It would have been the perfect location to re-create Little Q exactly as it had been in Quincy, bright lights, plastic utensils, smiling lamb, and all.
The lamb is gone.
He makes a symbolic appearance on an outside window, to remind those who care that, yes, this is the place that was that place. But as a logo, he’s been ousted by a “Q’’ in elegant, calligraphic script. It used to stand for “Quincy,’’ Zhu says by phone. Now it stands for “quality.’’
Tables are set with china, cloth napkins, and wooden chopsticks. Walls are painted red or covered in black stone, and from the high ceilings hang stylish pendant lamps. The glass entrance is tricked out with blue lights and water that trickles magically upward. There is a full bar, where a bartender shakes cocktails beneath a flat-screen TV. Toward the back of the room, there is a sushi bar. Reggae and jazz play on the sound system. This version of the restaurant is no imported knockoff. It’s Q, the second generation.
The hot pot, however, remains much the same. The broths are still complex, filled with peppers and herbs and floating pink wolfberries. The mala broth, which is numbing and spicy, could take the top of your head off — it’s hot, and if you like that kind of thing, it’s poetry. For balance, there is the phenomenal black bone chicken broth, simmered for six hours so the bones yield their marrow and the soup takes on an animal creaminess. The broths go into a pot on a burner on each table; when they are steaming, in go the ingredients, which you cook yourself.
A prime short rib combination comes with a mix of vegetables and choice of noodles. The thin, rolled slices of meat are so marbled with white they appear pink from a distance. Cooked in the broth, whisked out with chopsticks, the beef is incredibly delicious. Dunk it in soy sauce mixed with an array of condiments: garlic, cilantro, scallions, barbecue sauce, and chili paste. Greens cook quickly, becoming intensely spicy in the mala broth. A mushroom platter offers wood ears, shiitake, enoki, and more. There are several kinds of tofu to choose from, as well as the delightfully springy blocks called fish tofu. There are watercress and corn and rice cakes, clams and shrimp and squid. At the end, add cellophane noodles or udon for a final slurp with the broth, which is now infused with the flavors of everything you cooked. This is the joy that is hot pot.
But there are other hot pot restaurants in Chinatown, and Kaze and Shabu-Zen have strong followings. (Both are excellent, although Q’s broths have an edge.) Q distinguishes itself by going upscale, and by branching out to other parts of Asia with its fare. It seems to be working. There are often hourlong waits on weekend nights. A surprising number of people are eating elaborate maki rolls and plates of fried rice and pad Thai, drawn in perhaps more by the atmosphere than the specifics of the menu. Our waiter one night tells us only about half his customers order hot pot. Like the other servers here, he is young, helpful, and incredibly cheerful. When we inform him a late-arriving friend will be joining us, he says, “That’s wonderful!’’ When she arrives, he says, “Can I bring you a drink so you don’t feel lonely?’’
Aside from hot pot and sushi, the bulk of the menu focuses on Shanghai and Sichuan province. Smoked white fish is fried crisp and coated in a sweet soy sauce. Flat, chewy slices of rice cake are stir-fried with pork, bok choy, and mushrooms. There are spicy wontons and mapo tofu, and then more standard offerings like beef and broccoli. A house specialty — Q chicken in a bird’s nest — is a bowl made from cellophane noodles filled with tender pieces of chicken, peppers, and bits of water chestnut, served with lettuce leaves to wrap it in. The contrast between the hot chicken and cool lettuce enhances the experience.
The sushi is good if not spectacular; the fish is nice and fresh. Ramen appears on the menu, too, the crimped yellow noodles floating in black bone chicken broth with slices of beef or pork on top. It’s hardly traditional — it takes a few cues from pho, with bean sprouts and crisp shallot chips in the bowl. But it is its own kind of satisfying.
For dessert, Q offers cake and ice cream — the former ranging from tiramisu to New York cheesecake, the latter from vanilla to adzuki bean. There are smoothies, too — an avocado version is terrible, with a strangely plastic texture and little avocado flavor. Cocktails are strong, frequently fruity, and often a violent shade of blue or green. Sake, beer, and wine are also available.
Some come to Chinatown to eat at the little hole in the wall whose appearance belies the sparkling regional cuisine prepared for those who can read the version of the menu written in characters. Others prefer a sparkling environment, and proceed in the belief that style does not preclude good food. When these types meet over a table, it’s not always pretty. The former would have you know that Asia is a diverse continent, the latter that authenticity is a concept only as fixed as culture itself, and what’s so wrong with a spotless bathroom? Q Restaurant is a place both sorts can eat together, in a temporary truce.
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com.