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The Dolar Shop hot pot restaurant, in Richmond, B.C., in this file photo from Feb. 26, 2020.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

  • Name: The Dolar Shop
  • Location: 720-5300 No. 3 Rd., Richmond (Lansdowne Centre)
  • Phone: 604 370-7077
  • Website: dolarshop.com
  • Cuisine: Chinese hot pot
  • Prices: Individual broths from $7.99; sauces, $3.99; meat and seafood platters, $9.99 to $99.99; vegetables/tofu/noodles/wontons, $3.49 to $9.99.
  • Additional information: Open daily, 11:30 a.m. (11 a.m. Saturday and Sunday) to midnight; reservations now available.

rating

It’s tough being a restaurant critic in the time of coronavirus. Should I encourage everyone to go out and support small, struggling eateries? Or should I advise you to stay home and make soup?

I’ll do neither and instead tell about where I dined this week: The Dolar Shop, a premium hot-pot chain from Shanghai, which is known for its communal style of eating and long waits in a crowded lobby.

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That’s about as far removed from social distancing as it gets. But please allow me to explain why The Dolar Shop is a terrific place to eat right now.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Reservations now accepted

In the past few years, many Chinese hot-pot restaurants have opened in Metro Vancouver. Some, similar to The Dolar Shop, are high-profile chains from China; others are independent. Until recently, almost all had the same, supremely annoying policy of not taking reservations.

In early January, I went to The Dolar Shop with friends on a weeknight at around 7 p.m. We waited nearly a full hour in a congested vestibule with dozens of other patrons. As far as restaurant waits go, it was pleasant enough. The tufted leather benches were comfy. The white marble floors were spotless. Free tea and snacks (pretzels and fresh fruit) were provided on rolling trolleys. There were arcade games and a phone-charging station. The staff members, all of whom speak perfect English, were exceedingly polite.

But for an upscale restaurant that appears to be fashioned after The Venetian in Las Vegas – with walls of gilded mirrors, moulded ceilings and high-roller prices to match – the herding policy was even more jarring than its deceivingly downmarket name. The only way to skip the line was to book a private room or make a reservation before 5 p.m.

Complimentary ice cream cones at The Dolar Shop hot pot restaurant.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

All that changed with coronavirus. The Dolar Shop began taking reservations in mid-February, in deference to these “sensitive times,” assistant manager Jennie Chan explained. And the quick pivot is now keeping it afloat.

When I rocked up on Wednesday, at 7:45 p.m., I was greeted by a big bottle of hand sanitizer in a deserted lobby. We waited three minutes for a table, without reservations. And yet the 200-seat restaurant was close to capacity and is fully booked this weekend.

Personal hotpots

“War against the epidemic at the tip of your tongue" is the ominous-sounding name for a grassroots campaign launched against communal eating in China, where communal eating is pretty much a way of life. And hot pot – similar to fondue, with everyone dipping their food into a shared cooking cauldron – is the most communal meal of all.

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Dolar Shop solves some of this problem by offering personalized hot pots, set on induction burners in front of each table setting. They’re not the only restaurant group that does this, but it claims to have been the first.

Silver soup hot pot, bottom right, the deluxe platter, top centre, the beef and lamb platter, left, and hanging noodles, top left.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

More importantly, the Dolar Shop broths are amazing. Don’t bother with the standard pork leg, tomato-oxtail or spicy Sichuan. Go straight for the “exquisite” golden or silver soups. The golden is dark yellow and thickly gelatinous from slow-simmered rooster comb, chicken feet and pork-neck bone. The silver, although less of an edible emollient, is more balanced with the subtle burn of white pepper, sweetness of Chinese dates and umami depth of Jinhua ham.

Seriously, these two milky broths rank above and beyond any other hot-pot soup in Metro Vancouver.

Tableside service

Most of the new hot-pot restaurants offer a build-your-own sauce buffet. It’s part of the ritual and also includes an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of fresh fruit and crackers.

The Dolar Shop’s sauce buffet might still be open and busy, but to err on the side of caution, I don’t suggest you go there. For the same price ($3.99) the servers will trot up to your table with black plastic gloves and mix their signature (perfectly balanced) house sauce with green onions, garlic, cilantro, Thai chili and soy sauce.

Beyond sauces, the service here is exemplary. The servers go above and beyond to explain how to maintain the hot pot’s proper simmer and exactly how many minutes that delicious shrimp paste mixed with crunchy celery and water chestnuts should take to cook (four).

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Premium meat and seafood

One of the most notable things about the local Dolar Shop is that, from Day 1, it was Ocean Wise-compliant. This was a big deal for a Chinese restaurant. No shark fin!

The seafood here is top-notch and treated with reverence, delivered to the tables, theatrically, in smoking boxes of dry ice. For the most part, it’s well priced, although probably not as cheap as you’d expect. Dungeness crab is $26.80 a pound; king crab is $80 – but will likely go down.

The beef and lamb platters are premium. But may I suggest the richly marbled, hand-sliced short rib, the only meat not previously frozen.

The deluxe platter for $65.99 – with signature shrimp paté, meaty sliced jumbo scallops, king crab leg, oysters, white shrimp and wagyu beef cubes – is the house signature for good reason.

House-made noodles

All the extras are made in-house – the al dente, tri-coloured noodles served in a showpiece-hang, the beautifully pleated and bouncy pork-filled wontons, the greasy crueller-esque doughnuts, the complimentary soft-serve ice cream.

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Hanging noodles at The Dolar Shop hot pot restaurant.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Dolar Shop would be a recommended restaurant any time of the year. Right now, it’s one of the few places that is doing everything right.

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