What’s the password?
Sacramento, CA 95818
Persistently, the suspicion nags at Heat Shabu Baru that any moment now the music will swell and cages will descend from the ceiling with dancers in sunglasses, lime-green miniskirts and white go-go boots. Is this suspicion fueled by the stylized, pumpkin-orange apple-peel chandeliers? The pink walls? The brightly lit red “bricks” of the bar? Perhaps the white leather chairs, most likely made of the same material as the soon-to-be-seen go-go boots? These are proximate causes, for sure, but it’s more an overarching vibe that causes this smallish space on 18th Street off Broadway to feel like someone’s private club. As though there ought to be a slot in the front door and someone asking for the evening’s password. Maybe that’s why “baru”—Japanese for bar—is part of the title.
Happily, for devotees of Japanese fondue, Heat Shabu Baru lets just about anyone in, as evidenced by this review. Generally, restaurants like this—Shabu Japanese Fondue on R and 16th streets and Oz Korean BBQ on Bradshaw, for example—that make diners sweat to create their own meals aren’t a big hit. If cooking a meal is part of the evening’s game plan, that can be accomplished in the Lucas Family Test Kitchen without going somewhere and being charged for the “privilege” of doing somebody else’s work.
Grumbling aside, Heat Shabu has several commendable characteristics—not the least of which is a varied sake selection including a boldly refreshing sake lemonade. Very hard to stop at one glass. Very hard.
As to the shabu-shabu, the imported wagyu kobe is way good. It tastes better with the milder dipping sauce, its flavor lost in the spicier. The spicier sauce better compliments the lovely New Zealand lamb, however.
A nifty feature: The all-important boiling pot on the table’s burner can be divided. In brief, here’s the skinny on shabu at Heat: boil broth; plop in enoki mushrooms, Napa cabbage, spinach, chunks of corncob; swirl the wafer-thin lamb or beef slices until done. Dip in sauces. Eat with rice. Not the most mouth-watering or romantique description, but that’s pretty much shabu-shabu 101.
With the partition in the bowl, a more staid shabu shoveler can opt for the mellower miso while, just next door on the other side of the cauldron, a devil-may-care spice fiend can self-immolate in a Thai chili conflagration.
Even without the descending cages of dancing girls, Heat Shabu elevates itself by the menu items beyond its fondue core. Consider the shredded kumquat salad, a sunburst of yin-yang with mixed greens, cream cheese, mandarin oranges and pine nuts. Crisp and intensely refreshing.
Terrence Clifford Brennand, powerful labor-union leader, says the kobe sashimi is like M&M’s: It “melts in your mouth, not in your hands.”
The barbecue albacore is similarly addictive. It sits on a banana leaf—a recurring theme at Heat Shabu—with some daikon threads and diced jalapeños on top. It’s reminiscent of what Nishiki calls “Pepperfin” and Zen Sushi labels “Better Than Sex.” Heat Shabu’s version is sweeter and far more artfully presented. The fried chunks of agedashi tofu dovetail neatly with a light tempura-ish sauce.
Less rousing are the ramen bowls. Even one featuring kurobuta pork—literally “black hog,” a type of pork almost as prized as kobe beef—is somewhat bland. The mini corncob is a tasty surprise, though. The gyoza, thinner-skinned pot stickers, is cited by one visit’s friendly and conscientious waitress as her favorite appetizer. Like the ramen, the gyoza seems a bit pedestrian compared to the inspired albacore sashimi and kumquat salad.
At this writing, lunch isn’t an option unless one plans on eating it after 3:30 p.m., when Heat Shabu opens. The happy hour, which normally lasts until 6:30 but carries on until midnight on Tuesdays, is a good value with 15-percent off eats and relatively cheap drinks. All in all, a good option for a date or bringing together a friends who love sake and aren’t adverse to some all-you-can-eat shabu.