Sofia reviews: Welive for Hotpot — ‘straight out of Tokyo’
In a sentence: solo sukiyaki and hotpot straight out of Tokyo
The damage: allow $60 to 80 per head for the full experience
Top tip: the sets are the best bet for first timers
#EatCuriously: try fish roe balls and wagyu ox tongue
Quench your thirst: Japanese beers, sake and a free “bear” iced tea when you follow on Instagram
If you like this: but want something more communal, try Momo Sukiyaki & Shabu Shabu in the CBD (ask about their all-you-can-eat offer)
Welive for Hotpot is surely Melbourne’s most COVID-friendly restaurant.
It’s up a staircase on Russell Street, smack-bang between Lonsdale and Little Bourke. The entrance is not immediately clear until after dark, when a spinning “hotpot” projection rotates on the footpath. Look for the awning at number 217.
Welive for Hotpot doesn’t serve the many varieties of Chinese hotpot you might be more familiar with, but Japanese sukiyaki (ingredients simmered in sauce and then topped with broth) and soups. What makes this place special is how it’s geared towards the solo diner – I did a little excited dance on the spot when I saw it.
You’ll duck under a navy linen curtain to get to the front counter decorated with porcelain cats in traditional Japanese dress. Someone will check off your booking (essential) and escort you to one of 25 seats across three rows. Every spot is a booth with a timber divider that can be folded back if you’re visiting with a friend. It wouldn’t make much sense to go here with more than one other person.
Each person has a hotplate induction, bag hook, mushroom-shaped toothpick holder and even a small stand for you phone. Directly in front of you is a matchstick blind and behind that – if you peek through the “staff only” noren – is a hallway that leads to a central kitchen. This is where staff wheel the orders to deliver through your window.
They are incredibly helpful for first timers, but there’s also a system guide in each booth that points out the QR code to order and the service bell if you get stuck, or in my case, have approximately 48 questions.
I’d skip the starters (though the wasabi octopus is a classic – raw, spicy and slimy in all the best ways) and go all out on mains. As it was my first visit, my dining buddy and I ordered pre-selected sets: one wagyu sukiyaki set ($39.90 to $49.50) and a lemon ginger soup set ($68.90). These prices are for one person, and might seem a little steep, but remember you’re getting wagyu with the former and a huge selection of dishes with the soup. Now that I’ve been, I’ll order a sukiyaki base for $7.80 next time (soup bases are $9.80 to $13) and pick my own add-ins ($2 for vegetables through to $20 for wagyu sets).
Other add-ins include seafood (the meat is better), tofu, gyoza and one of my favourites of all time, fish roe balls. They’re these processed, teardrop shaped dumplings filled with tiny, bright orange fish eggs (usually pollock roe). But the most novel addition we ordered is called “Magic Golden Noodle”, where dry yellow noodles are suspended in space by “floating” chopsticks.
I love that there’s merch available to order on the menu, from umbrellas with Japanese prints through to novelty mugs. There are product displays at the end of the rows if you want to browse first.
I was a disappointed they’d run out of matcha beer, but was happy with Hitachino Nest White Ale from Naka city in Japan, just under two hours north east of Tokyo on the Suigun Line. Sparkling sake is floral and incredibly smashable, and there are fruit liqueurs, Asahi, Sapporo and unlimited house sake for $10 per person. If that doesn’t finish you off, a Jagerbomb will. For non-drinkers and kids there’s Kimura Ramune soda, famed for the little glass marble lids that you pop inwards when opening and that rattle around. If you follow the restaurant on Instagram, you get a free lemon iced tea topped with frozen bear.
I could talk about the cute little cat and dog figurines or wooden ema (small wooden plaques outside shrines with prayers written on them) with sweet and humorous messages from customers, but the thing that got me at Welive for Hotpot was the ladies room. It’s through a noren curtain printed with a bra, and in each loo are pouches with cotton buds, sanitary items, hair ties and little stain remover pads in case you’re a grub like me. So thoughtful!
It’s all these lovely, Japanese touches – like the placemats with manga cartoons encouraging social distancing and the hinged wooden “Not Finished” sign in each booth – that make Welive for Hotpot a truly unique experience.
How to Sukiyaki
If this is your first time trying sukiyaki, you can either refer to the guide hanging by your personal tissue box at Welive for Hotpot, or a staff member will pull up the curtain and help you out. A large pot with a small cube of lard is placed in front of you. First, whisk up the little dish containing your raw egg. Next, pour in the “cat sauce”, a sweet soy mixture poured from a cat-shaped dispenser at Welive for Hotpot. Use your chopsticks to melt the lard, and then cook your meat. When it’s ready, dip it in the raw egg mixture and then eat it with the rice provided. Keep topping up the sauce to make sure it doesn’t evaporate completely. Once your meat is done, pour out the rest of the sauce and fill the pot with the broth provided in the insulated bottle. Boil the rest of the ingredients, topping up the pot with the broth as you go.
Open daily from 5pm to 10.30pm.