Get a taste for virtual reality at New York’s Zhen Wei Fang

Wagyu beef cubes offer a taste of Zhen Wei Fang's quality ingredientsWagyu beef cubes offer a taste of Zhen Wei Fang’s quality ingredients — Photo courtesy of Katka Lapelosova

It’s challenging for chefs and restaurant owners to bring sensory dining experiences beyond taste, but Zhen Wei Fang, an Asian fusion restaurant formerly home to the Bowery location of beloved Congee Village, aims to provide as much “experience” as feels comfortable for those looking to enjoy a new take on Chinese hot pot.

A robot greets you when you first arrive, before you’re taken through a dining area with colorful lighting, cascading floral displays, and orchids at every turn. New scents surround you as you’re finally seated; nearby tables are topped with steaming pots of broth and herbs, tiny grills cook skewered meats and a display of shellfish sits on ice, literally “chillin’.”

Say hello to the robot at the bar!Say hello to the robot at the bar! — Photo courtesy of Katka Lapelosova

Owned by Ricky Liang, in collaboration with the team behind Zhen Wei Fang in Miami, the restaurant opened in September of 2018, and takes a different twist on the traditional hot pot setup. Most hot pot restaurants in New York serve the meal communal style – guests decide on the broth and ingredients together, using one pot of broth to cook everything.

Zhen Wei Fang has elevated this experience by providing diners with individual hot pots. A representative from the restaurant said this was to offer guests the chance to enjoy the hot pot process based on their own preference. Everyone who orders gets to choose their own stock, as well as ingredients to go with the broth.

This is crucial for today’s diner, who values customized culinary endeavors, especially in an era where curated meal plans and nutritional modifications are becoming more and more mainstream.

Stir all of your ingredients together; every guest gets their own hot potStir all of your ingredients together; every guest gets their own hot pot — Photo courtesy of Katka Lapelosova

Hot pot is thought to have originated in Mongolia 800-900 years ago. Typically, various foods would be poured into a cauldron over a fire. The primary ingredient was meat, and the broth was not spicy. Hot pot subsequently spread throughout China, where distinct regional variations developed.

The experience is similar to cooking in broth at a fondue restaurant. But those new to the steamy realm of the hot pot universe receive an extra special introduction, especially when sitting in one of the restaurant’s designated virtual reality booths.

Zhen Wei Fang kitted out a selection of pavilion-style seating areas with three walls displaying projections and lighting effects, reminiscent of a funky disco. They feature what the restaurant calls, “Dinner Time Stories at Zhen Wei Fang,” an immersive and interactive pre-meal experience.

According to Liang, “Each diner has their own setting, which is completely mapped with 3D projections. It looks like the chef is right there on the table making the food for them, from Beijing duck, spicy dry pot, to hot pot.”

The virtual reality seating areas feel like their own little party zoneThe virtual reality seating areas feel like their own little party zone — Photo courtesy of Katka Lapelosova

No headsets are needed; the projections, which imitate a tiny chef walking around the diner’s plate, show the various ingredients and ways to cook and eat hot pot. It’s a delightful way for guests to interact with the ambiance before their meal.

For appetizers, the beef, lamb, or squid skewers are fun to grill; the hot stone beef tongue is also a treat to cook and eat. The Peking duck is a house specialty, something found within the area but not usually at a hot pot restaurant.

But the spicy Dungeness crab, cooked with fiery chili oil and black pepper, is a real crowd-pleaser. You’ll work for your food (and make a mess in the process) but it’s the perfect lead-up for your hot pot experience.

Spicy Dungeness crab offers flavors you rarely find elsewhereSpicy Dungeness crab offers flavors you rarely find elsewhere — Photo courtesy of Katka Lapelosova

Eight broth bases are offered, including bone broths and vegetarian options. The restaurant prides itself on the freshness and quality of its ingredients. Diners have dozens of options to choose from, and it’s all served with style.

Black cuttlefish paste arrives on a small platter, accompanied by a cheeky baby figurine. Fragrant bunches of greens (baby lettuces, spinach, Napa cabbage, parsley), stacks of fresh shiitake mushrooms, firm lotus roots and other vegetable items are carried to tables in baskets made of wood. Proteins are served on tiered trays, similar to an afternoon tea setup. Some, like the house special wagyu beef cubes, arrive in a nest.

Black cuttlefish paste and a wooden basket of greensBlack cuttlefish paste and a wooden basket of greens — Photo courtesy of Katka Lapelosova

Zhen Wei Fang also offers a broad selection of bean curd and seafood options, but it’s the meats that really make this hot pot restaurant stand out. USDA certified Prime ribeye and AAA New Zealand Jeju Black pork belly are all on offer, as well as Japanese wagyu beef (superior grade A5).

Tripe, pork brain, and duck feet are ingredients new diners may wish to sample as well. All of these are complemented with house-made sauces like sesame and chili oil paste, adding more flavor to bites removed from the broth after cooking time is over (a handy cheat sheet is found within the restaurant’s menu).

Zhen Wei Fang even has a few booths for casual dining experiences or intimate dates, while the virtual reality tables are bigger, with seating up to eight. A semi-private area upstairs is perfect for a larger gathering, but two private rooms downstairs are where diners can feast and really entertain; both are equipped with circular tables and set up for karaoke on a large television screen.

House-made sauces are a signature here and complement each biteHouse-made sauces are a signature here and complement each bite — Photo courtesy of Katka Lapelosova

Compared to other restaurants in the New York area, including the electric dinner spots of Times Square, Zhen Wei Feng’s technology is ahead of the game. Yet, the innovation found there feels like an approachable version of the sometimes overwhelming experiential restaurants found elsewhere in Asia (Tree by Naked in Tokyo, for example).

Liang hopes to incorporate more interactive technology in the future, aiming to reinvent how we eat, and how these features enhance our overall dining experience.

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