Shabu Japanese Fondue is dip-swish-a-licious

03/14/2010 1:00 AM

08/13/2012 9:18 PM

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.


1730 16th St., Sacramento

(916) 444-6688

Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday. Dinner, 5-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Vegetarian-friendly? Yes.

Full bar? Small selection of beer and wine, including sake.

Overall: 2 1/2 stars (promising)

A newcomer on the restaurant scene, Shabu is off to a nice start. The best things it has going for it are the quality ingredients, the novelty of being different and the hospitality of the primary owner, 25-year-old John Voong.

Food: 2 1/2 stars (promising)

The focal point is the shabu shabu, featuring very thin slices of high-quality lamb, chicken and Kobe beef cooked in savory broths. The seafood option is also quite appealing. You are the cook, but you can't really mess this up.

Service: 2 1/2 stars (pretty good)

One server was very friendly and engaging. Since many diners won't be familiar with the concept, it would be helpful to provide a bit more information and a few suggestions about how to optimize the experience.

Ambience: 3 stars (good)

It's a long, rectangular room with pleasant lighting and big windows. The biggest benefit is its location along busy 16th Street (at R Street). The restaurant itself is an attractive billboard that beckons motorists to stop in and try it out. The steamy air you feel when you walk in? It's all that broth cooking the food.

Value: 3 stars (good)

If you're doing shabu shabu right, you're probably having a good time with friends and loved ones. The ingredients are high-quality and priced right. There is also an all-you-can-eat option for $30 and an all-you-can-eat-and-drink deal for $40. If you think you're starring in a reality show where you're the dumb guy, give this a shot.

Noteworthy: For food geeks, induction burners are among the coolest of kitchen gadgets. There are 23 of them here. The cool thing? The "burner" uses a high-frequency electromagnet to heat the pot but not the surface area. Thus, the pot of broth can come to a boil in under three minutes, but when you remove the pot, you can actually touch the induction burner without getting burned.


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