I have never seen anyone wipe a table with such energy and rhythm it almost seemed like a theatrical performance, and one too professional and quick for my camera to capture at that.
Turned out that this table wiping performance was just one in many surprises I was going to experience this night. In fact, this was not the first either. Outside Haidilao’s Mudanyuan branch there is (as there is tonight) at least a hundred people waiting to be seated, daily. Hence Haidilao provides its customers, easily having to wait for anything up to one hour, with services from playing cards, tea, fruit to, believe it or not, manicures – all complimentary! Luckily tonight we were under the benevolence of Lai Jie (meaning “Big Sister Lai”). Lai Jie is how the Haidilao staff likes to call my friend Stephanie Lai, a regular customer at Haidilao. Having confirmed our identity as Lai Jie’s friends we were swiftly escorted, past a couple of girls getting flowers painted on their nails, upstairs to where our table was being wiped sparkling clean by the acrobatic table wiper.
After the talented table wiper came the oh-so-friendly waiters who never failed to carry a smile on their faces - from the bottom of their hearts. It is rare enough to be sitting at a restaurant where 100% of its servers provide you with the kind of service that makes you feel, “This person must be enjoying his job!” The fact that this restaurant is a local establishment in Mainland China makes it an even bigger surprise. Two minutes into the soup bases arriving and a few seconds after they started showing signs of boiling the waiters promptly delivered to us: 1.Plastic covers for cell phones which were left lying on the table; 2. velvet wipes for people with glasses and 3. brand new hair bands for girls with long hair. I am not even sure French Laundry pays so much attention to detail.
One can easily order way too much food at Haidilao. Amongst the three of us we finished two plates of meat, vegetables, tofu, winter melon, fish balls, and two big bowls of the freshest clotted duck blood (do not be put off by the sound of this clotted blood which came soaked in liquid blood and was so fresh it looked almost jelly-like). However, however much you order and however full you feel, make sure you save, or make room, for la mien at the end. La mien here is made by teenage-looking kids decked out in hip hop outfits performing various dance moves with the noodles. And if you ever worried about hygiene like I did, do not worry, these kids are professionals. Rest assured that the noodles touch only space as they are hurled around as if in a Beijing Olympics gymnastic feat.