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DINING REVIEW: Yummy Garden Hot Pot

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UPDATED 2/22/13: Edited to reflect that Yummy Garden is technically in Brighton, not Henrietta. We apologize for the error.

The Great Recession raked the retail stores and restaurants of the Brighton/Henrietta area particularly hard, offering opportunities to those with big dreams and modest budgets in search of cheap rents and a captive audience of students and faculty from the two universities that bookend the area. The "L" defined by West Henrietta and Jefferson roads heading down toward R.I.T. is full of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Indian restaurants and grocery stores, many of them of relatively new provenance. Something pretty striking is happening in the area, and so it makes sense that you'd find one of the most intriguing restaurants in the area right at its epicenter — at the intersection of West Henrietta and Crittenden roads.

Although it opened in August 2010, Yummy Garden Hot Pot — the first sit-down restaurant in a mini-chain of Yummy Garden take-outs scattered throughout the city — still has the cachet of newness to it. The place is spotlessly clean, the decorations fresh looking, the soundtrack replete with contemporary Chinese warbling. Bustling, but not ear-splittingly noisy, Yummy Garden is instantly welcoming and fun. It's as good a place to bring a group of friends for a boisterous dinner as it is to bring your family for a walk on the wild side of Chinese food.

What Yummy Garden is not, though, is a date restaurant. Of necessity, the tables are huge — at least 4' across — making an intimate tete-a-tete impossible unless you are gifted at napkin semaphore. But you need all that space to accommodate the huge quantity of food that you'll be dealing with. Start with a bubble tea or a beer and peruse the menus. You could order typical American-style Chinese food, you could get a bowl of Vietnamese pho, or order up Thai curries (the yellow-red-green trinity is here). But one look at your table should bring you back to your senses: you came to Yummy Garden for hot pot.

Get a couple of appetizers to whet your appetite. The steamed pork-belly buns and the sliced-beef pancake are both good choices, the latter containing lovingly braised beef tendon and flank with shredded carrot, cilantro, and a drizzle of hoisin wrapped in a "pancake" closely resembling a buttery croissant squashed in a panini press. If you are really feeling adventurous, you might want to consider braised chicken feet with pickled peppers, or a spicy salad of sliced beef and tripe, or even some crunchy beef tendon served cold in chili oil and Szechuan peppercorns. This isn't your typical Chinese restaurant.

Slideshow: Yummy Garden Hot Pot

A walk on the wild side of Chinese food.

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Hot pot is the Chinese version of fondue, and normally this do-it-yourself exercise in creative cooking is a collaborative affair. Diners put bits of meat, veg, and noodles into a communal pot full of boiling broth and then scoop them out onto their own plates, the broth getting richer and denser as the meal progresses. Things are a bit different at Yummy Garden. Here, each diner gets his or her own pot of broth along with a tray full of veggies and whatever sides you choose to order. Each of the starter plates comes with an egg, an ear of corn, some mushrooms, a couple of fish balls, a small stack of sliced rice cake, a skewer with a couple of squares of fried tofu, broccoli florets, and cabbage — napa, bok choy, and shredded white cabbage are all represented here.

How you combine these ingredients is entirely up to you. You could make a meal of just the starter plate, but you'll be so much happier if you select a couple of items from the voluminous menu. The cute rolls of fatty beef, still frozen and sliced so thin you could probably read through them, are a must, as are the shrimp dumplings. More advanced eaters could go for any of several sorts of fish, beef in various forms, or, for the "Fear Factor" touch, cubes of congealed pork blood (milder than it sounds). And don't forget the noodles. There are pages and pages to choose from, but the dainty bundles of translucent yam noodles were a stand-out favorite for both flavor and ease of retrieval from the bubbling cauldron.

The stuff you put in your personal hot pot is pretty mild. The flavor comes from the broth, which ranges from the completely tame chicken broth enriched with onion, sesame seed, and Chinese dates (also known as jujubes) to the pleasantly medicinal "healthy herbs" broth full of goji berries and angelica root (excellent for fighting colds), to spicy-tangy pots full of tom-yum soup or, my favorite, the fiery "spicy" broth. At full boil, a pot of spicy broth — the surface slick with chili oil, the depths murky and clouded with garlic, Szechuan peppercorn, and a host of other spices I couldn't easily identify — looked not unlike the caldera of a volcano. The broth infuses everything it touches, adding a peppery bite to even the most mundane ingredients.

The broth, though, is only half the story. For a bit more flavor visit the "sauce bar," a long counter covered with containers full of chili oil, soy sauce, oyster sauce, fermented bean paste, red vinegar, sesame oil, ginger, scallions, garlic, chopped fresh chilis and other delights. Select one of the premixed sauces or concoct your own, altering spicy, salty, sweet, and sour to fit your own tastes. Better yet, make a couple of different sauces to take back to your table, allowing you to experiment even more with the effect of subtle changes on the dishes you create. Above all, lunch or dinner at Yummy Garden is an experience to be savored and necessarily lingered over. Invite friends, order that second beer, ask for more food than you think you will need, and settle in for an evening's adventure.

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