Adventures in fondue
Sacramento, CA 95811
Let’s do the shabu-shabu? A freak-dancing variant? Yet another euphemism for “the horizontal mambo”?
Almost as good: Shabu-shabu is Japanese fondue. Originating in Osaka—as did okonomiyaki, or self-cooked Japanese pancakes—shabu-shabu is a tarter stepsister to sukiyaki. Like sukiyaki, broth is the medium, rather than bubbling Emmenthal and Gruyère. And doing the shabu-shabu is what one should do at the aptly named Shabu on 16th and R streets, perhaps preceded by their spicy poke salad.
On the menu, there’s also sushi, scallion-scarce but cheaply priced udon offerings and quickly congealing curries. But there’s a reason each black table has a burner sunk in its center. And it’s the same reason there are 12 burners in front of the 12 seats at the black-countered bar: to do the shabu-shabu that only Shabu do.
Like so many fun activities, shabu-shabu is a team sport. Perhaps that’s why the word is repeated. It can be done alone—and, of course, that guarantees a meal with someone you love—but it’s merrier with more. It also takes time.
First, there is the selection of broth: miso, spicy miso, chicken or shoyu, soy sauce made with wheat and, go figure, soya beans. Spicy miso is the most decorative—a flotilla of bright dried red peppers and yellow pepper seeds adrift on a beige miso sea. Then there are more choices. Kobe beef? Chicken? Lamb? Seafood—shrimps, scallops, clams, mussels and kamaboko, slices of processed white fish—is the priciest at $20. Vegetarian is the cheapest at $10. Go root-hog, and for $30 get all you can eat. For $40, all you can eat and drink. Try all 10 of the sakes and wobble home both sated and stoned.
This is just the beginning of the shabu-shabu adventure. Once a choice is made—the waiter/host recommends Kobe—the broth is brought, the burner fired. The broth begins to heat. A word of caution: The peppers do their thing a few minutes after the broth starts roiling. Pull some out for less heat. As the broth gets hotter, a ring of explosions of miso stuff rising from the bottom forms. As the explosions come faster, the peppers are shoved to the edges of the pot.
After a few minutes, the broth is seething but still not boiling. To take the edge off the wait, things begin appearing at the table. First comes a white rectangular tray with small piles of diced scallions, chopped garlic and grated horseradish. Then two squares—one with ponzu; one with goma, a sataylike sauce of puréed sesame seeds. Ponzu twines better with the beef. Next, a large square mounded with vegetables—enoki and white mushrooms, chunky carrot flowers, wings of Napa cabbage, fan-sized spinach leaves and coils of udon noodles. Emptying the dish seems a daunting challenge. Even more daunting with the arrival of a large bowl of rice and a plate with 12 paper-thin slices of Kobe.
Larger, intermittent bubbles break the surface, and, ultimately, a roiling boil ensues. The waiter suggests a strategy in which half the vegetables go into the drink and, when they’re done, in go the rest. As for the Kobe, wave it back and forth five or six times in the broth. The strategy is implemented, at least partially. Less than half the vegetables get dunked during the first effort. The Kobe waving, however, works perfectly.
Chopsticks and udon noodles grapple: the chopsticks wishing to haul the noodles from the pot and onto a broth-ringed pile of rice, vegetables and beef liberally sprinkled with scallions, garlic and horseradish. The noodles scoff and, in retribution, find themselves forked and quickly consumed. What seemed like an impossible task—finishing the meal—proves easier because several components, the beef and spinach in particular, shrink. Others escape into the broth’s depths.
The adventure concludes. A Kirin is hoisted. A return for another shabu-shabu adventure guaranteed.