Where the guests cook for themselves, speaking with your mouthful is socially acceptable and authentic Chinese hotpot dining experience meets one of the youngest and most cosmopolitan new restaurants in the city.
“Hier man kocht selber.” (Translation: Here, people cook for themselves) says self-proclaimed brother number one, Yong. But Feng, the smaller brother argues that he’s number one. I ask where Mama Liu is.
“She’s in the kitchen,” Feng says with a cheeky smile.
Virgins in this particular form of dining may shy away from it at first. But if you’re walking past and peer in the large windows and see a group of people sitting around one of the table tennis size tables sharing a hot pot, you’ll wish you were part of it.
“It’s a communicative way of eating,” says one of my fellow diners. I agree with him, especially after I realise that another of my fellow diners who is typically church chapel silent when food is in front of her, is chatting away in between slurps and dropping things into the pot.
Only opening a few weeks ago, Mama Liu & Sons is one-of-a-kind in Vienna and is a complex new character to the Vienna’s restaurant scene. It’s made up of contradictions – it’s 10-years-old but brand new, it’s deeply traditional but edgy and modern and here, guests cook for themselves.
“We’ve owned the restaurant space for the last 10 years when the idea first came to me but the people of Vienna weren’t ready for this kind of traditional Chinese dining,” Yong says to me.
As Yong gives me a tour around the adventurously designed restaurant, the small, but significant details he points out reflect the 10 years of contemplation that has gone into this place. The Chinese figure painting snatching your attention as soon as you walk in, the bulbous Italian lamp shades spotlighting each table, the sweeping, simple modern chairs and tables leading to the 200 year old wooden Indian engraving on the wall. The design of the place all looks pretty simple and minimalist upon first glance, but on close inspection personifies the Chinese proverb – A fly before his own eye is bigger than an elephant in the next field.
Two square tables in an enclave of the restaurant are as broad and big as the boulevards of Beijing.
“12 to 16 people can fit around them and the tables weigh about 300kg each,” says Feng.
I was once told that dining tables in Asia are round because eating is a social activity where words and food are shared. This is in contrast to the square tables of the western world where everybody is given their portion, and it’s is socially acceptable to stab a fork in to somebody’s hand if they try to encroach on your food (wink, wink).
While the tables are square in Mama Liu & Sons, they have brought this concept of social eating to Vienna in a very handsome setting.
For those not familiar with hotpot (known as Qingtian in the Southeastern China where Mama Liu and her sons are from) etiquette, the waiters here are always prepared with a Buddha-like smile and an explanation to walk you through it. There’s also an explanation on the menu.
But to give you a crash course on how to order: The first page of the menu is full of Chinese type tapas. Order a couple for the table to begin with. We highly recommend the Xiao Bing – a flat dumpling.
Then you’ll reach Mama Liu’s specialty – the hotpot. For this you choose a soup (or a couple) and either a vegetarian (vegan), meat or seafood set.
Then it’s pretty simple from herein. You take all the magnificently fresh ingredients from the platter of your chosen set, throw them in the soup broth and talk about world affairs, the middle east conflict or how you hate toe hair…whatever you like – until whatever you’ve thrown in is ready to fish out. The friendly waiters will also comprehensively explain how long each ingredient should be brewed for.
Slurping and a ladle war as you fight to fish out what somebody else dropped into the broth are to be expected … or maybe that was just us. They pride themselves on their traditional focus in the menu.
“Many Chinese restaurants in Vienna will claim to be traditional, but then serve sushi and sweet and sour pork on their menu,” Feng says.
“Not here – we are not trying to fit to our guests already acquired taste, but rather give them something new that will give them a new experience in authentic Chinese cuisine.”
And, with a cheeky grin, Feng adds – “We’re so traditional, we even serve pig’s ears and beef intestines upon request.”
The dishes here really do possess the subtle flavors typical to Southeastern Chinese cuisine.
But the traditional focus ends in the kitchen. The bar’s menu is as futuristic as the bar looks, with its steel mirrored panels that look like something out of a Terminator movie (check out the toilets, made up of the same stuff). The cocktails are all house creations and can all lead to severe intoxication due to their high deliciousness factor. We recommend trying Feng’s own fruity and sour creation called, “Feng”, or the “Chinese Ghost story”. The house-made ice teas (especially the Ost Wind and the Süd Wind) are also enough to have you forgo the perks of alcohol. Meanwhile, the fridge is packed with beers from all over Asia – the largest selection we’ve ever seen from this region around town.
On the way out, Yong gives me his business card and says, “I better write ‘number one son’ on there so you remember.” I laugh. The two number one sons and Mama Liu have opened up one of the most fun, youngest (and oldest), and most cosmopolitan, dining experiences in town.