Cafe Reviews

Shabu Debut

Ah, the smell of chocolate and meat! Two great tastes that taste great together. Okay, maybe not. Still, this is what my olfactory nerves deal with each time I enter Chandler's 4-week-old Shabu Fondue, a hip, nightclubby eatery that looks like it belongs catty-cornered from Stingray Sushi in Scottsdale. Instead, the place is nestled betwixt a Bank of America drive-through and a vacuum-cleaner vendor.

The curious and not-unappetizing fragrance of Toblerone and tri-tip is a result of the Swiss-Nipponese hybrid suggested by the joint's name. The first part refers, of course, to shabu-shabu, a Japanese dish wherein vegetables and thinly sliced beef are quickly cooked in a communal pot of boiling water. Shabu-shabu is an onomatopoeia that translates to "swish, swish," the sound made when your chopsticks are moving the beef around in the broth.

Fondue is the stuff you always see David Niven or Britt Ekland eating in some late-'60s film involving skiing, hot tubs, turtleneck sweaters and jewel heists. It's also the culinary craze your parental units may have participated in back in the decadent '70s by throwing at least one dinner party involving pools of melted cheese, wife-swapping and drugs. Yes, your 'rents. After all, if Methodist-man George "Jesus is my co-pilot" W. was snorting and toking back in the day, you can conjecture that mom and dad may have done it, too.

Actually, fondue (from the French verb fondre, "to melt") dates from at least the 18th century, when Swiss peasants devised it as a way to make eating stale bread in the wintertime interesting. You'd think the Swiss would've come up with the idea of dipping comestibles in chocolate for dessert, but we Americans seem to get the credit for that particular innovation.

Shabu-shabu is even older; centuries before the concept was introduced to Japan in the mid-1900s, the Chinese had their version. To confuse the issue further, the French have something called fondue bourguignonne, supposedly invented by a shiftless friar, wherein chunks of beef are dipped in boiling oil and dunked into various sauces.

Thus Shabu Fondue's concept is not as grotesque a pairing as it first may seem, and once you eat there, you may wonder why there isn't one of these dunkaterias on every block.

Cheese fondue is offered as a prelude to shabu-shabu, though either one can be ordered separately. And a couple of different types of chocolate fondue are made available for dessert, with maraschino cherries, marshmallows, graham crackers, strawberries, sliced bananas, and a hunk of cheesecake ready for the Hershey treatment. I preferred caramel-chocolate to the straight chocolate, but you'll be hard-pressed to find fault with either one as the gooey chocolate melts before you in the red, traditional-style calquelon pot.

All cooking is done on one of the electromagnetic induction stoves built into the tables and the U-shaped bar that dominates the main dining space. With these induction stoves, only the pot and the area immediately underneath it are heated up, so there's less chance of burning yourself on the flat, Pyrex-like material of the stove itself. Impressive. Probably the way they toast Pop-Tarts on Futurama.

Diners can choose from three types of cheese fondue: the classic Swiss mixture of Gruyère and Emmenthaler, with white wine and spices; a Cheddar fondue of Emmenthaler, Wisconsin Cheddar, beer and seasonings; and a spinach and artichoke fondue, with Emmenthaler, Cheddar, beer, garlic, artichoke hearts and spinach. For dipping, you're served a bowl of bread chunks -- pumpernickel, sourdough and rye -- as well as two of these sides: apple chunks, celery and cauliflower, or pretzels and tortilla chips. Steer clear of the straight-from-the-bag pretzels and tortilla chips, and stick with the apples, celery, cauliflower, and the bread, which is best of all.

I sampled generous portions of both the Swiss and the spinach and artichoke fondues, but I found the Swiss bland and in need of some sort of kick, maybe some sherry or brandy. On the other hand, the spinach and artichoke was quite flavorful, and I discovered myself mopping up a whole portion all by my lonesome. In fact, screw the long prongs. A spoon and a bowl of hot spinach and artichoke fondue will do me fine as a starter.

Shabu-shabu's main course can include prime rib, rib eye, shrimp, chicken, shrimp and prime rib together, or a veggie plate including tofu. Now, I've eaten a lot of shabu-shabu in my day, mainly because I've been blessed with Japanese in-laws who love to see how much I can ingest before doing my reenactment of the Hindenburg disaster. (Oh, the humanity!) And though Shabu Fondue's shabu-shabu was missing a few of the more Japanese elements -- like bean sprouts, enoki mushrooms and shredded daikon -- I found it to be a fair American-restaurant version of what I've had in the past.

I could feast on acres of these nearly paper-thin slices of prime rib and rib eye before finding myself satiated. The surf-and-turf option came in third place. Nice, but not as satisfying as those plates of meat. With the chicken, you really need the variety of condiments Shabu Fondue provides to make it palate-pleasing, everything from the citrusy ponzu and thick sesame gomadare to more American sauces like horseradish, Southern barbecue, and sweet and spicy steak.

Each shabu-shabu entree comes with a platter of veggies. Everything cooks very quickly, but be very careful when preparing the chicken. I'm pretty skittish about raw chicken, though avoiding cross-contamination is relatively easy if you consult your server and use common sense.

Areas for improvement? Shabu Fondue really should use Japanese rice instead of Chinese rice, as the former just goes better with shabu-shabu. And it should have Kirin Ichiban on draft. Shabu Fondue does have it in bottles, but only a cretin would drink Coors, Miller or Michelob (three of the five beers on tap there) if Kirin was an option. Hot sake also should be made available, as Shabu Fondue only has cold sake at present.

Otherwise, the trio of co-owners, Kevin Weil, Thomas Williams and Jim Richards, is to be congratulated, not just for the concept, but for the sleek, red-and-black interior, a bona fide chick magnet. Eye candy for the eye candy. And, happily, the place offers grub that's just as attractive to the digestive system.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons