News & Reviews
Shabu Japanese Fondue is dip-swish-a-licious
Article by Blair Anthony Robertson
Photography by Lezlie Sterling
March 14, 2010
John Voong has always enjoyed meeting people, has always loved food, has never shied from a challenge.
So he opened a restaurant.
But many things were not in his favor: The economy had bottomed out, he was very young, and most folks
around here had never heard of the cuisine he wanted to showcase, something called "shabu shabu."
So what did Voong do? He saved his money from waiting tables. He crunched the numbers. He dreamed big
and planned carefully, negotiating his way into a lease in a high-visibility midtown locale.
By November, he was a restaurateur, launching Shabu Japanese Fondue without spending a penny on advertising.
You know what? The concept works, and the long, rectangular dining room with big windows and dark hardwood
floors looks great. At night, it practically invites motorists along busy 16th Street in midtown to pull
over and have dinner.
It's fun. It's interactive. It's delicious. And in a town with sushi on every other corner, it's good to
be different. You dip pieces of fine food in hot broth, you go swish-swish with a flick of the wrist, and
you're ready to eat.
How is the country going to claw its way out of economic despair? With a bunch of folks like Voong – smart,
daring and personable, with plenty of style and some lofty aspirations.
Once a teenage delivery boy for a Chinese restaurant in Elk Grove, Voong learned the restaurant business
from the bottom up, landing a job as manager of a sushi place at age 20 and venturing into the restaurant
ownership game five years later.
Shabu Japanese Fondue has high-quality ingredients, and you're the cook. Even if you're not exactly an
iron chef or that peculiar cheflike character Rachael Ray, you'd be hard-pressed to mess this up.
Unlike typical Western-style fondue, in which food is cooked mostly in hot oil, shabu shabu – swish, swish –
involves hot broth and premium ingredients.
As Sarah Singleton of the entertaining (and candid) food blog "Undercover Caterer" wrote recently of Shabu,
"You can eat like a pig and not feel guilty about it."
What's not to like about guilt-free gastronomy?
And did we mention fun? The food comes to the table attractively arranged – and raw. The lamb, chicken
and wonderfully marbled beef (American-style Kobe, i.e., the good stuff) are sliced as thin as tissue.
There is also a plate loaded with spinach, lettuce, tofu, mushrooms, carrots and those long, thick udon
noodles, all suitable for a plunge in the broth of your choice. The shoyu broth is probably the most popular.
I liked the spicy broth. Chicken and miso broth are also available.
Our server told us 10 seconds for the beef, at least 30 seconds for the chicken. But really, there are no
wrong answers. At one point, I plunked several pieces in the broth at the same time and got to talking,
letting several minutes pass. The food does not burn the way it would in hot oil. Instead, it collects flavor
from the broth as it would in a nice soup.
Voong told me by phone that he prefers his beef cooked for just three or four seconds.
But be forewarned (i.e., don't do what I did): Wait several seconds after you take the food out of the broth
to put it in your mouth. It's tempting to dip, swish, devour. But the food is much too hot, as I learned the hard way.
Your best bet for a first visit is to get the sampler plate for $18 so you can compare flavors of the lamb,
beef and chicken. They also take on different tasting notes when you dip the cooked meat in the two sauces,
both of which are made in-house.
The ponzu sauce has both sweet and sour components, thanks to the fresh lime juice mixed with soy sauce, fish
stock and a touch of vinegar. A vegan option is available without the fishy stock. The lighter-colored goma
sauce is made with sesame seeds; it is creamy and mild, almost like an aioli.
I also enjoyed the attractive seafood platter ($20), which came with mussels, scallops, clams, shrimp and
kamaboko fish cakes all lined up in rows. It was easy, delicious and more than I could eat.
Shabu is a new venture, and it was bound to have a few glitches. Though our server was friendly and attentive,
it would have been nice to get a little more guidance on what we were supposed to do and what we were looking
at on the plates. A minor quibble.
Voong is clearly a people person who enjoys meeting customers, and the energy level takes a mighty downward turn
when he is not there.
When we stopped by one night, Voong's stand-in walked by several times without saying a word or smiling. That
may just be his style. But in the restaurant business, shy and stoic can be taken for somber – and we don't go
out to be somber.
The menu has a few other options, including a very good poki salad ($8) with a pleasingly spicy finish and
rich textures; and Hiya yakko ($3.50) featuring tofu, sesame oil and bonito flakes, which was pleasant and
low-key, meaning I could be convinced it was a tad dull.
The shabu shabu portion of the menu is the main event here and could benefit from more variety as the
restaurant establishes itself.
What else can we cook in hot broth? Keep us wanting more.
There is an all-you-can eat option ($30 for adults, $15 for ages 12 and under), but that would add gluttony
and perhaps guilt to the equation.
Shabu Japanese Fondue is off to a promising start, and the future looks bright for a restaurateur who was
young enough to embrace the challenge and smart enough to bet on something different, entertaining, simple and,
with a mere swish here and swish there, delicious.