Because we didn't have to wait for a table, the snack and mani stations weren't opened; there was no need for such freebies to distract us from rumbling tummies. No biggie, I'd take no queue over free snacks any day!
Still, the frills were all there; the rubber hair-ties to tame flyaways, the plastic ziplocks to protect your phones from drips, the microfibre cloth to clean your spectacles, the aprons to maintain your pristine clothing. All complimentary, of course.
And, the stellar service standards blew us away; this was one of those occasions where the hype was totally lived up to. Our waitress was ever so smiley, and always seemed to magically apparate to assist in skimming the scum, or help form those perfectly shaped balls of fish paste or prawn paste, or simply to recommend the must-trys in the mind-boggling array of ingredients on the iPad self-serviced menu.
Service aside, the food was excellent, albeit a smidge pricey considering that there's no cooking involved here. The ingredients were sparkling fresh, and the soup bases, the mala and chicken, were robust and rich in depth. I was never a fan of mala, as I've always found mala hotpots to be overwhelmingly spicy; the numbing chilli obliterated any other flavour.
But, Hai Di Lao's Sichuan Spicy Mala soup base was addictively good; it was layered and I could actually taste the peppercorns and dried chilli elements grounded in the chicken-and-pork bone base. The Chicken Soup ($22 for split soup hotpot), on the other hand, was sapid with the sweetness of wolfberries, earthy shitakes and oyster mushrooms, and the heady distinctiveness of half a black chicken.
The sauce station, where you get to mix your own dips from a melange of aromatics, herbs, spices and sauces.
From right to left: a Putien-like chilli sauce; vinegar
From left to right: chives; coriander; light Soy
From right to left: minced celery; cut chillis; sesame paste; crushed peanuts; soyabean sauce; crisp soya beans
From left to right: minced garlic; barbecue sauce; chinese chives flower; sesame oil; crisp soya beans, soyabean sauce; crushed peanuts
From left to right: ground beef; beef sauce; preserved sichuan pickle; chilli oil; crushed garlic; barbecue sauce; chinese chives flower; sesame oil
From left to right: Korean-style chilli sauce (gochujang); mushroom paste; fermented beancurd sauce; seafood sauce; fried ground beef
From left to right: oyster sauce; Korean-style chilli sauce (gochujang); mushroom paste; fermented beancurd sauce; seafood sauce
My personalised dipping sauce: 1 part mushroom sauce, 1 part seafood sauce, 1 part barbecue sauce, half part sesame oil, 1 part sesame paste
Crisp Seaweed strips for dunking into soups
Scallops ($12 for full portion)
Cod Fillet ($7 for half portion)
Red Tilapia ($18 for whole fish)
Crispy Fish Skin ($4 for half portion) - great to dunk into the soup just before slurping it down, it lends a slight crunch
US Beef Slices ($9 for half portion) beautifully marbled and mild
Pork Belly ($14 for full portion) - skip this and get the black pork instead if in a pinch
Black Pork ($16 for full portion)
Give the Spicy Pork ($7 for half portion) a miss, the black pork is so much better, and once dunked in the sichuan soup base, becomes spicy anyway.
Luncheon Meat ($4 for half portion)
Shitake Mushrooms ($3 for half portion)
Oyster Mushrooms ($3 for half portion)
Fried Tofu Skin ($3 for half portion)
Deep Fried Tofu Puffs ($3 for half portion)
Chinese Cabbage ($2 for half portion) always a safe option as steamboat greens
Spinach ($3 for half portion) - be sure to dredge these out as soon as they are wilted. They make the soup bitter if they're left in to soak too long.
Crown Daisy ($3 for half portion) - or tung oh, which I hate, so my very sweet friends indulged my preferences and put these in only at the end
Although not pictured, the mashed meat ($11 for half portion) and handmade noodles ($4 for 1 person portion) are must-trys. The former because they were just delicious, like incredibly fresh prawn/fish/spinach/squid balls; and the latter just for the show.
Hai Di Lao
Clarke Quay #02-04
3D River Valley Road
Tel: 6337 8626 / 6337 8627
Open daily from 10.30am to 3am