At some restaurants, the lure is 100 percent edible. Outstanding dishes can help me shrug off sticky tables, wobbly chairs, and servers whose blithe indifference to my needs leave me wondering if my scowls are being captured by hidden cameras in a “bad restaurant” reality show. At Little Lamb, the reverse is true: it’s the room that draws crowds.
The food, Chinese hotpot reminiscent of shabu-shabu or other broth-based Asian fondue, is solid, but secondary. The room takes top billing, as a portal to choose-your-own adventure episodes for groups who aren’t afraid to make their own fun.
At most restaurant thresholds, you can predict how the evening will unfold. Not so much at Little Lamb, where dinner can include you and your friends starring in the latest chapter of “Night of a Thousand Selfies.”
Little Lamb is an international franchise restaurant presenting a type of meal that’s popular with Chinese diners. The site in Amherst is across Sheridan Drive from the main Chinese market for the Chinese community around the University at Buffalo’s North Campus.
Here’s how it works. Pick a broth ($3.99-4.99), spicy or not, that will be installed in a table inset within arm’s reach, burbling away as you cook your own dinner. Some insets are large enough to hold a divider, and the opportunity to try two broths in one cauldron.
Then select plates of stuff to simmer in that broth from a menu so diverse, merely reading it starts the adventure rolling. Decisions have to be made. Meat-eaters can choose from various cuts of lamb, beef, pork and chicken, which arrive arranged artfully on platters ($7.99-$15.99), all shaved thin for quick cooking. Seafood ranges from conch to oysters ($6.99-$9.99), and there are 15 kinds of meatballs, including many made of fish, offered in large and small sizes ($3.59-$8.99).
Most categories offer combination platters, an easy way out when confronted with 17 kinds of vegetables ($2.49-$5.99), nine kinds of mushrooms ($2.99-$6.99) and five kinds of tofu ($2.79-3.99).
A section reductively titled Hot Pot Dishes, holds homey options like quail eggs ($5.99), Spamlike “luncheon pork” and fried crullers, ($2.99) plus a few whose very names may send the squeamish screaming into the parking lot. But there’s plenty to eat without resorting to poached duck flippers, fresh pork intestines, or goose intestines ($5.99-9.99).
Before you start cooking, there’s one more required activity: creating dipping sauces. On a counter by the entrance is a row of spice and condiment vats that customers use to concoct sauces for post-simmering dunking. Ingredients that go into the hotpot are mostly unseasoned, not even salt and pepper, so the apres-simmer sauce is a must for maximum enjoyment. Suggested recipes are posted on the wall.
Beginners should assemble at least two, following the guidelines, then return midway through your meal, to assemble more after your taste buds are humming with intelligence fresh from the flavor front.
That’s a lot of potential interaction, questions, and kibitzing if you’re in a group. And I haven’t even mentioned the karaoke.
Because if you tell the host you plan to spend over $150, your group is entitled to three hours of karaoke in one of the private dining rooms, equipped with a widescreen television, server call button, lazy-Susan-topped circular tables, and sound-absorbent walls. The karaoke catalog includes Western and Asian popular music. (Bummer alert: Little Lamb Amherst does not have its beer and wine license yet, but expects it soon.)
As to the food? Get some meat, get some vegetables, seafood if you like, get some meatballs, even if made of fish. You can always order more later. The spicy broth is the most flavorful, and it isn’t even a “hot” on the Duff’s scale, so don’t be scared off.
Favorites at a recent meal included beef ribeye ($8.99), handmade noodles ($2.99), pork meatballs ($5.99 large), Fuzhou pork balls ($6.99), baby bok choy ($2.99 large), and white beech mushrooms ($3.99).
Consider also sections of menu offerings that don’t go into the pot, arriving ready to eat. My favorite bite of the meal was cumin-crusted lamb skewers under Mongolian BBQ ($7.99/4). Spicy radish sticks ($4.99) were a tangy, crunchy change of pace, and the Mongolian lamb pie, a thick, seasoned lamb-burger in flaky pastry ($7.99) won friends.
In my professional capacity, I asked for duck flippers, too. Turns out the flesh you find nibbling between a duck’s toes tastes just like the skin on a duck breast. Except that in my case it was flavored with a flush of embarrassment. “You’re supposed to spit out the little bones,” our server said, shaking his head.
In the end, Little Lamb is what you and your party make of it. As a dedicated fan of authentic Chinese cuisine, I found it tame, accessible, even. I was reminded after the meal that our server compared it to McDonald’s for Chinese people. He meant that anyone who’s been to a Little Lamb knows what to expect, even in Amherst.
But I could not help thinking of the crowds of students drawn to golden arches across America, lured by french fries and McNuggets, surely, but even more hungry for a helping of after-school high jinks.
Little Lamb - 7 plates
Chinese hot pot is a broth fondue meal that’s especially engaging as a group.
WHERE: 3188 Sheridan Drive, Amherst (834-0218)
HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
PRICE RANGE: Broths, $3.99-$4.99; vegetables, meat, seafood plates and other fixings, $2.49-$18.99.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.