When you head to a city like Sydney, finding a restaurant is not a difficult task. Just about everywhere you go, you will find somewhere serving food, trying to entice you to step inside and spend your hard earned in their establishment.
The techniques employed vary - Lygon Street in Melbourne is packed with some of the finest Italian restaurants you'll find anywhere, practically every one of them with a spruiker at the front, imploring you to eat there. Others try to get your business based on their low prices, promising a meal with little pain in the hip pocket region. Some strive to provide their diners with fantastic food, relying on good word of mouth recommendations from people who have eaten there, or even better a good critical review.
Then there are those restaurants which rely on an interesting gimmick to get you in the door. Something slightly different, a dining experience which is out of the ordinary. Many westernised Teppanyaki restaurants fit this category, where the dining experience is not only about the food you eat, but the preparation of the food. The experience of being able to sit, and watch a highly skilled chef cut the food, often with great flair.
Genghis Khan Mongolian BBQ fits into the 'gimmick' category of restaurant. Eating here is not only about the food, but also participating in the creation of your meal.
The first thing that strikes you when you enter this restaurant is the glass enclosed area, dominating the centre of the restaurant. Inside, there are two large metal plates, heated by gas flame. Quite a bit of food will be on the floor surrounding these plates, and two or three chefs will be inside the enclosure, large and powerful extraction fans positioned above their heads. This is where the fun part of your meal takes place.
Before we get to the part about how your meal is created, I probably should fill you in regarding the history of this style of cooking. Of course, the Mongols were a rather warrior-like people. They had large armies, and fighting other people was something they did very well. Given this, they had a lot of victories to celebrate. This is where the victory meal comes in. Following a victory in battle, the Mongols would hunt, gathering meat. This would be sliced thinly, and freeze in the chilled air. They would then cook the meat, using their battle shields as a hotplate. Long saplings would be cut, in order to toss the food as it cooked. Thus, the Mongolian BBQ was born.
Genghis Khan Mongolian BBQ has tried to reproduce the original Mongolian BBQ. The battle shields have been replaced by the gas driven metal plates mentioned previously, the saplings are now elongated chopsticks. There are more vegetables available, and a variety of ingredients to create your own sauce. At its heart through, the concept is the same.
So, how does it all work? Here's where the gimmicks come in. Firstly, there is a buffet style cabinet. You order the all you can eat Mongolian BBQ option from the menu, and you're away. Collect a bowl, and start creating your meal. Firstly, you choose from amongst four meats - lamb, beef, pork and chicken. The meat has been very thinly sliced, then snap frozen. When you take it from the cabinet, it's in a small cylinder shape. Grab some, break it in the tongs, and chuck it in the bowl. Choose a single meat, or a combination. Then, add vegetables. There are a number available - bean sprouts, carrot, onion, tomato, capsicum, cabbage and shallots were on offer when I ate there.
There's a bit of a trick here. You really shouldn't be shy about piling your plate high with ingredients - they will reduce significantly with cooking. If you go for a bowl that's just barely full at this stage, you'll get a third of a bowl of food in the end.
Now that you've got all the food in there, you need to flavour it. The end of the buffet cabinet is dedicated to flavouring ingredients. Shrimp oil, vinegar, cooking wine, ginger, garlic, lemon and sugar waters, chilli oil and paste - you get the point. Now you get to be a bit creative, and create a flavour mix personalised to your own tastes. Not so keen on garlic? Leave it out, and add extra ginger instead. Spicy food doesn't agree with you? Then don't add the chilli. It's good fun, trying to create a unique flavour combination. Of course, if you can't decide, or are unsure of how the different flavourings will combine, you can simply use the default mix, which is pretty much a bit of everything, in varying quantities. The bowls have quantities labelled on them - just add what's written on the ingredient bowls to your food bowl, and you'll end up with something quite tasty.
This is where the really fun bit starts. Take your bowl of food up to the enclosed cooking area, to the 'in' window. The chef will take your bowl, and toss its contents on the hotplate. You'll be struck with a sudden, loud sizzling sound, and a large plume of steam will appear. The chef will skilfully toss your food for - at most - a minute, before sliding it back into your bowl and passing it through the 'out' window. It's really incredible to see just how quickly it's all done, with up to two meals on the same hotplate, tended by separate chefs who somehow manage to not run both into each other. Once you've got your bowl back, add sesame seeds and chopped peanut, and you're ready to eat.
So what's it taste like? Well, like many restaurants which operate on a bit of a gimmick, it's good, but not great. Don't get me wrong - it does taste good, the food's fresh, the result is as hot as any restaurant meal you'll ever eat - however everything does tend to taste the same after a while. I ended up eating three bowls - the first one, I didn't add enough flavourings, and it was a little dry and bland. The second, I went for the default flavouring mix (well...slightly tweaked). The last, I went for extra chilli oil, a nice spicy one. They certainly had different flavours, but the differences were subtle, not like you were eating three different dishes.
This place would not be all that good if you had allergies to any of the foods on offer. Everything is cooked on the same plates, and while the chefs do clean the plate periodically, there would be a real risk of getting a food you shouldn't eat in your bowl.
All in all, eating there was an enjoyable experience. Certainly, I wouldn't eat there all the time - variety is the spice of life. One aspect of the meal I enjoyed, was the fact that everyone at the table was talking about their food. Comparing their combinations - when someone bought a new bowl to the table, everyone else was interested in what they'd selected. Extra garlic, the omission of a certain flavouring - it was all a topic of discussion. While the food itself may not have been the greatest I've had in recent times, everyone left the restaurant thoroughly satisfied, having had a great time.
The restaurant I ate at was on Kent Street, Sydney. Mongolian BBQ restaurants are scattered around the world though - if you think you'd like to try this style of dining, I'd suggest Googling 'Mongolian BBQ', and trying to find a restaurant near you.