Shabu Fondue: Chef Johnny Chu's Hot Pots Return in Style

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When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out -- and let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened, sampling a few items, and satisfying curiosities (yours and ours).

Restaurant: Shabu Fondue Location: 7822 N. 12th Street Open: About a week Eats: Hot pot Price: $15 to $20 per person

If you're a fan of hot pot, then you were probably quite disappointed when chef Johnny Chu's T. Spot (formerly Tien Wong Hot Pot) closed its doors earlier this year. Since opening in 2011, the southeast Valley restaurant had been a dining destination for those craving an interactive and unique dining experience unlike anything else in town.

The good news is that Chu's well-loved hot pots are back -- this time in a Sunnyslope strip mall next-door to his other new-ish restaurant concept, RedThai Southeast Asian Kitchen. Abnd though Shabu Fondue only opened its doors last weekend, it's already prepared to make Chu's fans feel right at home.

See also: Johnny Chu's RedThai Southeast Asian Kitchen Turns Up the Spice in Sunnyslope

It's true that from the outside, Shabu Fondue looks a little neglected compared to its sister restaurant. The Asian fondue spot's sign is both smaller and simpler than that of RedThai and the door could be easily overlooked. Step inside it and you find yourself in a front room with an open doorway to RedThai on one side and another door to Shabu Fondue directly ahead. The setup is pretty odd, particularly since the door to RedThai deposits you directly into the dining room where you may have to stand for a few minutes before a server can come and seat you at a table.

On the other hand, the Shabu Fondue space is quite stylish; fans of Tien Wong/T. Spot will probably notice the parallels between the designs. There are no lanterns, but a cluster of vibrant red parasols hanging from above serve as an eye-catching centerpiece. Small light fixtures holding electric candles create the illusion of light that's floating elegantly over your booth.

One side of the narrow room features a wall of mirrors, while the other displays a collection of modern Asian-looking art. Touches like a giant Buddah head illuminated by blue light will remind you of the decor at Chu's Sochu House and the soundtrack of cool, indie-rock should be familiar to hipsters and fans of Chu's dining spots.

Once you're seated in one of the plush red booths, your server will explain the hot pot concept for those who may not have experienced it before. We were really impressed by how knowledgeable our server seemed considering the newness of the restaurant.

Then again, the idea is pretty simple: Choose your type of broth and a handful of meats and vegetables you want to cook in it. Pretty much like with Swiss fondue. The broths are heated by an electric boiler mounted in the middle of the table and kept boiling throughout the meal.

The nine broth options listed on the regular menu range from the tried and true House Chinese Herbal to more daring options such as Korean Kimchi and Coconut Curry. All can be made from pork or chicken stock base or vegetarian and cost $4.95. The Ying Ying option let's you choose two of the broths for an extra dollar and makes a good choice for first-timers or indecisive groups.

There's a long list of ingredients you can cook, which range in price from about $8 for a plate of New York Angus beef to about $3 for enoki mushrooms, corn, or noodles. The meats -- like shrimp, pork belly, and beef puffs -- will take about 30 seconds to cook, while vegetables can take up to about three minutes.

The House Chinese Herbal broth is subtle but floral and contains Goji berries, chestnuts, and whole cloves or garlic. We also tried the Spicy Lemongrass, a milder option than the House Ma La Spicy Broth. (Both our server and the chef cautioned that broth is "very spicy.") You'll want to put your mushrooms and other vegetables into the broth first since they'll take longest to cook and also impart some additional flavor into the broth. The meats can be swished back and forth in the broth and then eaten.

The sound made while moving pieces of beef through the broth is where the Japanese name for hot pot, shabu shabu, originates.

Each guest also gets sides of soy and ginger miso dipping sauces. The ginger miso is slightly nutty and sweet, a perfect pairing for rich pork belly or mushrooms.

Unlike T. Spot, Shabu Fondue's menu is strictly limited to hot pots for now. Chu says he's hoping to add a few more items to the menu once the kitchen and front of the house are better settled. The drinks selection does include beer, wine, and sake -- though you won't find any of the cocktails served next door at Red Thai.

Compared to T. Spot/Tien Wong, Shabu Fondue feels a little more polished, like a more buttoned up version of the original restaurant. It's still a casual dining spot, but unlike T. Spot -- which was part ramen shop, part tea house, and part hot pot restaurant -- Shabu has a clear vision that makes it a more enjoyable place to dine.

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