If the crummy part of eating healthy is all the prep work involved, local restaurateur Johnny Chu has swooped in to save health-conscious diners (and anyone who likes fresh food and a nice bowl of soup). At Shabu Fondue, Chu does the chopping and washing and we, at long last, have an estimable shabu-shabu restaurant in Central Phoenix.
In Japanese, shabu-shabu means "swish-swish," because one swishes slices of meat and hunks of fresh vegetables through pots of hot broth that cook them. The windup involves a tasty soup of reduced broth full of bits of what you've been dipping -- easily the best part of an already pleasant meal.
The Japanese art of cooking at the table by dipping food into boiling broth has a notorious past. Invented by Mongolian emperor Genghis Khan in the 13th century as a way to quickly feed his famished soldiers, the cuisine caught on throughout China and later Japan. Several hundred years after, it finally took a deep bow in America, in 1979, by way of Shabu-Shabu 70, a Manhattan restaurant that's still going strong. In the '80s, I used to eat at a shabu place in San Francisco's Sunset District with my cousins Jan and Lisa and despaired of ever finding this hot-pot cuisine in the Valley. (To be fair, a couple of places include also-ran shabu on their menu, including YZ's Hot Pot and BBQ and Chandler's Taiko.)
But proper shabu-shabu requires the kind of dedication to cuisine offered by Chu at Shabu Fondue, located next door to his other new restaurant, Red Thai. There's no flashy showmanship, here. Chu and his wife, Linda Q, who also own Sochu House in Central Phoenix, haven't messed with shabu's simple principles: Fresh vegetables and meat paired with traditional broths with familiar Asian flavors are the key to successful shabu, and Chu provides both in abundance.
Opened in September, only a few months after closing Tien Wong Hot Pot, his failed Chandler shabu diner, Chu's shabu space shares a foyer with Red Thai. At that restaurant, an entire wall of giant-screen TVs play captioned anime serials above a bustling 70-foot-long bar. Next door, Shabu Fondue offers Zen-like calm in a narrow, sparsely adorned room with 20-foot ceilings and a long, mirrored wall. Each table is fitted with a convection burner onto which servers place the pot of broth you order; I always ask for a divided Yin-yang pot, one side filled with spicy broth (the zesty lemon grass broth is best), the other side with something subtler (I love the coconut curry, which also is a little on the spicy side; fans of blander fare might try the floral-rich Chinese herbal broth). These are poured into watched pots, kept simmering but not boiling by attentive waiters who walk diners through the vagaries of shabu dining.
Diners order, dim-sum style, from a list of paper-thin-sliced meats, simple vegetables, and high-end mushrooms, all of which arrive at your table raw and ready for swishing. After plucking lamb, beef, and fresh fish from the boiling broth, diners can dunk the morsels into either a sesame-peanut sauce or a zippy ponzu.
The vegetable menu is the most diverse. White beech mushrooms were crisp and pungent and better in soup than the stringy straw mushrooms. Chrysanthemum leaves added subtle flavors to Goji Ginseng broth, while watercress vanished into even the subtlest broths. Korean pumpkin is a must-have. After cooking for five minutes or more, it remains firm enough for chopsticks but melts in your mouth with mildly sweet flavors.
Grass-fed beef was tender but so subtly flavored, it needed saucing. Fat-marbled lamb needed no help from either broth or ponzu, and tissue-thin white meat chicken soaked up broth flavors of coconut and curry. Fishes arrive fresh and slightly frozen; by my second visit, I'd learned to dump an entire bowl of scallops into my broth, then re-plate them for nibbling throughout the meal. Shrimp are available with and without heads, and squid is tender and flavorful when pulled from its hot pot in time.
Rich cuttlefish puffs also require some supervision, but the moist pork dumplings can be left to simmer -- nothing can destroy their tasty combo of seasoned pork and vegetables wrapped in tender, doughy egg-flour skin.
The long list of noodles for spiking your end-of-meal soup include Chu's delicious flat rice oval noodles, as well as kitschy ramen and traditional egg noodles.
Chef Chu offers a modest beer, wine, and sake list, although drinks from Red Thai's full bar are also available upon request. So, too, is dessert, which I never have room for but couldn't resist on a recent visit. The beignets arrived crispy and warm, with cream cheese and jam wrapped in crunchy phyllo-like dough.
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On each of my visits, service from fresh-faced youngsters included tips on cooking times for each of the many foods I ordered and which dumplings were their favorites. While service at Shabu Fondue is always energetic and friendly, first-time diners might benefit from firmer suggestions by waiters about better combinations of broth and meat. One companion, wary of raw meat, dumped vegetables into a house ma la spicy broth that obscured their flavors.
However you eat it, shabu-shabu isn't a gracious meal, and it isn't meant to be. Drops of broth will puddle the table as you drag food from the hot pot to your plate, and someone always seems to wind up with a glop of dipping sauce on his shirtfront. Look at it this way: You're eating healthy like a good grownup, while making a mess at the table, just like a kid.
Shabu Fondue 7822 North 12th Street 602-870-3015 www.shabuphx.com
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday; 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday