Shining Rainbow

209 Central Ave.
Restaurant Web site
Cuisine: Chinese
Style: Casual

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Price: $$
Price rating based on rough average of entree costs: $ for $9.95 and less; $$ for $9.95 - $15.95; $$$ for $15.95 and higher.

What winter food should be

By CELINA OTTAWAY, Special to the Times Union First published: Sunday, January 10, 2010

I'm on a mission to change my attitude about winter. At some point, I have to accept that I live in the Northeast -- it's been 15 years now -- where the cold gets hungry and bites.

My response, like some defensive sea creature on a Discovery show, has been to curl into a ball and spew bitterness. I'm not social, or creative, or even appreciative. I'm just cold. Cold in a way that seems impervious to heaters and warm cups of tea. And what kind of way is that to live for three to four months of the year?

Well, I found my attitude adjustment at a back table at Shining Rainbow on Central Avenue in Albany. You can now get real Chinese hot pot in Albany, and it's not a moment too soon. A pot of broth sits at the center of the table, and your chosen ingredients -- the many options include lamb, beef, oysters, cilantro, straw mushrooms and fish balls -- are plunked in as you go. Noodles and broth follow as a last course, once the soup is full of flavor from the other ingredients. While you wait for the soup to cook, you take the small bowl in front of you and mix your own condiment mashup from the many pastes that get passed around -- hot chilies, sesame paste, satay paste, and two kinds of fermented bean curd sauces are some of the offerings. When the first of the items emerges, you swish it in the sauce in your bowl and eat.

Hot pot is everything that winter food should be. It's hearty in a way that makes you feel alive and healthy instead of depressed and heavy. It's uplifting, because the meal is by necessity social, and sitting at a table full of friends can uncurl even the most curmudgeonly winter grouch. And, most important, hot pot is hot. Hot in the way that seeps into your lips and your throat, and then your blood and your belly, and, finally, your bones.

Shining Rainbow, which opened in March, offers two menus, one for hot pot and one for an array of other Chinese food, some Americanized choices like General Tso's chicken and more authentic dishes like sautéed watercress and squid with black pepper. There is also a selection of surprisingly good sushi, for those who want to go in that direction.

The hot pot is the star of the show, though. We took over one of the large, round tables in the back recently and turned over the ordering to the two Chinese women at our table.

The cooking pots are two-sided, so you can select two broths per pot. Each pot is $10. We chose Ma La, a spicy broth made with Szechuan peppercorns, and a simple chicken broth. The Ma La carried a wonderful heat, but didn't have the serious numbing effect of some versions of the broth. I suspect they were going easy on us. You can specify how spicy you want the broth, so it is easy to adjust for tastes. The chicken broth was simple and mild. If you are going for a non-spicy option, opt for the herbal broth, which is more fragrant and made with Chinese medicinal plants including ginseng, dried red dates and goji berries.

You can order your cooking ingredients a la carte -- a plate of paper-thin slices of marbled beef is $8, Chinese cabbage is $4, yam noodles are $3 -- or you can opt for one of the combination packages, which may work better for larger groups. As my grandmother used to say, we went for the full catastrophe and ordered the all-you-can-eat option for $20 a person, plus $10 for the pot of broth. This is an incredible way to experience a hot pot meal, as the menu is wide and varied and you have a chance to sample a little of anything you like. (I've ordered a la carte with my family of five on other occasions, and we did quite well for about $12 a person.)

A meal like hot pot rises and falls on the quality and freshness of the ingredients, and Shining Rainbow excels here, especially with the seafood. The shrimp arrived in their shells with heads and tails on and tasted of a light breeze rolling over the sea. Nothing like the rubbery, processed shrimp flavor you find at most places. The crab, which was still flicking with reflexes even though it was quartered, burst with ocean sweetness. Make sure to try the Fuzhou fish balls, a house specialty. The tender outside of the fish ball gives way to a warm, slightly sweet pork mixture on the inside. They are addictive, and I watched my Chinese friend go back again and again for them.

Another standout ingredient was the tofu, which is the best I've had in this area. It's silken, but holds its form well in the hot pot. The flavor is so light and fresh you will forget all the slightly sour tofu you've ever picked out of a health food store bin. Order it both plain and fried. I tend not to like fried tofu, which often has the consistency of a used sponge, but Shining Rainbow fries its silken tofu, and the effect is like biting into a hot pillow of brothy flavor that melts into a light cream in your mouth. The tofu skins (not on the menu but ask for them), were also delicious.

The service at Shining Rainbow is helpful and friendly, and the waiters are happy to explain how to order hot pot and help you negotiate the condiments that go into dipping sauces. As for my winter blues? What blues? I'm cured.

Celina Ottaway writes about food and life at CelinaBean.com.

Shining Rainbow

209 Central Ave.


Phone: 396-3882

Web site: http://www.ShiningRainbow.com

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Prices: All-you-can-eat hot pot for $20 a person, plus $10 for the soup broth. Chinese lunch specials, including Szechuan-style chicken or beef and chicken with scallions, come with soup and rice for $5.25. Sushi lunch specials offer a selection of two rolls and miso soup for $7.99 or three rolls for $10.99. There is a large dim sum menu with items like stuffed eggplant for $2.95 or chicken congee for $2.95.

Credit Cards: Yes, all major

Accessible: Yes

Parking: On street, metered during weekday business hours