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I’ve always had mixed feelings about restaurants where you cook your own meal. While it can be entertaining, the experience often is not easy or particularly fun. So it was with some trepidation that I visited Shabu Japanese Fondue, which recently opened in midtown.
It occupies a long, narrow space directly alongside 16th Street, and unless you sit facing away from the front of the restaurant, the traffic shooting by will feel like an integral part of your dining experience. A lengthy counter dominates the space, surrounded by a handful of tables. (Only a few can accommodate parties larger than two.) Walls are a warm mustard yellow and scarlet, and aside from the televisions hanging above the counter, decoration is kept to a minimum.
While the kitchen offers a small selection of sushi and other entrées (steer clear of the glutinous curries), it’s the fondue that brings in the customers. First, you choose from four broths in which to cook your meal: shoyu (soy sauce); miso (yep, the same stuff found in miso soup); spicy miso; and chicken. Then you choose what to cook in that broth, from a selection that includes thinly sliced American Kobe beef, lamb, chicken and a beautiful array of seafood. Every diner gets a heaping plate of vegetables (doll-size bunches of enoki mushrooms, crinkly spinach leaves, Napa cabbage and carrot coins), udon noodles and soft blocks of tofu. If that isn’t enough to build a delicious meal, you also receive a tidy condiment trio of finely chopped daikon, garlic and green onion, along with small bowls of a lovely, sweetish goma (sesame) sauce and a citrusy ponzu sauce.
Once this bounty is placed in front of you, it’s not obvious what you’re supposed to do with it, or how. At this point, instruction would be very helpful. Yet the two times I visited Shabu, service was virtually nonexistent. I found myself grasping helplessly at waiters as they sped by, eyes averted. “This is like the Home Depot of fondue restaurants,” grumbled a companion.
The first time I went, I stared at my condiments for several minutes, then dumped them all into my broth. I’m not sure if that’s how they were meant to be used, but the result was delicious. On a sub-sequent visit, I flagged down a waiter after I’d spent what seemed like an eternity hovering anxiously over a vat of broth that refused to simmer. He graciously cranked up the heat on the fondue warmer so that I could begin to clumsily cook my meal.
If more than one person in your party wants fondue (which they will), sit at the counter, where each seat has its own fondue warmer. If you sit at a table (which has a communal fondue pot), you’ll have to share a broth, which brings up a host of issues. What if your companion wants miso and you want shoyu? After the broth negotiations, you’ll confront the perplexities of the cooking process: Who puts what in when? Is it OK to eat your companion’s tofu or chicken? And how can you tell yours apart from his, anyway?
But once you meet these challenges, the resulting meal is gloriously simple, delicious and—yes—entertaining. A fog of fragrant steam from your broth will infiltrate your hair and clothes (don’t plan on wearing that wool sweater the next morning), but you’ll enjoy the delicacy of the quickly simmered meats and vegetables; the slippery, mushy comfort of the noodles; and the light, custardy texture of the tofu, all plucked, steaming, from the bubbling broth.
Shabu offers an enticing assortment of Asian beers and sakes that pair nicely with the fondue, and there are several pleasant small plates (such as a bountiful garden salad) to start out your fondue feasting. Don’t bring small children; the restaurant is cramped, and the broth is uncovered and boiling. But if you’re looking for a creative spot for a first date or a refreshing change from traditional dining, visit Shabu Japanese Fondue.
Really hungry? $40 gets you all you can eat and drink (beer and sake)
For sushi lovers: There’s an eight-piece nigiri sushi sampler for $10
1730 16th St., Sacramento; (916) 444-6688; shabu-fondue.com
Hours: Lunch Monday–Friday 11 a.m.–2 p.m., dinner Sunday–Thursday 5–10 p.m., Friday–Saturday 5 p.m.–midnight