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February 19, 2006

Pining For Shabu Shabu

UPDATE : Chiyo has closed

In Tokyo's Ginza district, on Ginza-Dori, is a restaurant named Zakuro. Zakuro is traditionally decorated, with folk art on the walls and kimono-clad swat teams of hostesses doing their utmost to make you comfortable. Though Zakuro serves a variety of Japanese foods, their specialty is nabemono -- a Japanese genre of pot-cooked foods including the well-known sukiyaki and its lesser-known cousin, shabu shabu. (Zakuro was also the site of the $50 peach debacle, but that's another story for another time.) Not only is the service impeccable, but in a particularly nice touch, every time you leave the restaurant there's about a 50/50 chance that you'll be given one of their pottery teacups as a parting gift.

I really like shabu shabu.

The problem is that the ratio of my massive, uncontrollable shabu shabu cravings to the number of trips I make to Japan generally hovers somewhere around 37:1. During the years I lived in Los Angeles, this wasn't a big problem. There's a huge Japanese community in L.A., and on a four block stretch of Sawtelle alone, there are about a dozen places you can go for an inexpensive and satisfying fix. Of course, the Little Osaka joints aren't of the same caliber, but they feed the need. However, for reasons I don't understand, good nabemono is exceptionally difficult to come by in Chicago. Once upon a time, there was a fantastic restaurant named Honda, though in truth it was more of a self-contained Japanese culinary complex. The place seemed to take up half a city block, with the bottom floors comprising the restaurant and the top floors comprising the dormitories where they'd house the chefs they flew in from Japan. Sadly, Honda closed years ago, leaving a Japanese cuisine vacuum that has yet to be adequately filled.

As such, I was beyond thrilled to hear that Matsumoto, a restaurant that previously served exclusively kaiseki meals, had just reopened as Chiyo, and that nabemono would be the centerpiece of the menu. Tonight, we gave it a shot.

For the uninitiated, shabu shabu is thinly sliced beef and vegetables, cooked in a pot and dipped into a pair of sauces. The pot is filled with boiling water, seasoned with a little bit of konbu (seaweed), and placed on a burner at your table. The beef is sliced extremely thin -- almost carpaccio thin -- and the vegetable plate usually includes items such as napa cabbage, chrysanthemum leaves, shiitake mushrooms, enoki mushrooms, daikon radish, green onions, tofu and noodles. As for the sauces, you have two to work with. First is ponzu, comprised of dashi, soy sauce, yuzu, mirin and, frequently, garlic. The other is goma su, a creamy sauce made with ground sesame seeds, soy, sugar, rice vinegar, oil and garlic. Also, there are usually little condiments that can be added to the sauces, such as minced green onion or chives, spicy grated daikon, pureed garlic or chili oil. The meat and vegetables arrive at your table raw, and you swish them around in the pot to cook them. Yes... shabu shabu is a Japanese onomatopoeia. And occasionally, depending on the restaurant and the season, when you're finished cooking, the resulting broth will be converted into a little cup of soup for a nice finish.

So it was with great anticipation that we walked into Chiyo this evening. It's a very small place -- only five tables, plus a bar -- and it just oozes Japanese. By that, I don't mean that it's all rice paper and kimonos and lanterns. I mean that it looks like a casual little joint that you might wander into in Japan. It's modern, clean and minimal with little Japanese touches in the decor. Our set menu started us out with a little marinated daikon, and then a small sashimi starter that included salmon and flounder. Then came the burner and the sauces. Sadly, this is where my disappointment started. For me, shabu shabu lives and dies by the goma su. Over the years, I've probably visited about a dozen shabu shabu establishments between Japan and the U.S., and I've always found that the goma su falls into one of two distinct categories. The first is a very smooth sauce that's quite sweet with a very pronounced vinegar flavor. The second is a lumpier sauce, usually a touch heavier on the garlic, that is barely sweet at all and very, very nutty. My tastes have always leaned strongly towards the former... preferably with a healthy dose of chives and a bit of chile oil. Sadly, Chiyo serves the latter, with almost no sweetness whatsoever, and no chile oil anywhere to be seen. Before the beef had even hit the table, I knew it would be difficult for me to give Chiyo a fair shake. It's not that I think the savory goma su is any less legitimate, it's merely borne of a different culinary philosophy... one that is incapable of satisfying my craving.

But I have some reservations about the beef as well. The menu offers both a prime ribeye as well as Kobe. We opted to go whole hog and spring for the Kobe. To be clear, I have no idea if it was actually Kobe. Unfortunately, that's a term that's suddenly being tossed around with reckless abandon, even if it's only accurate 2% of the time. It could have been Kobe, it could have been Kobe-style, it could have been Wagyu, or it could have been none of the above. I have no idea. What I do know is that while it was beautifully marbled, and tasty to boot, it wasn't nearly the magical experience that I've come to expect from Kobe. Also, it was sliced too thick for my tastes. Everywhere else I've had shabu shabu, the beef is sliced extremely thin -- almost carpaccio thin. But here it was a good 2-3 times thicker. It threw off the balance, and also meant that a mouthful of beef wasn't as light and tender as it should have been. It may have been a stylistic choice, but it was one that wasn't working for me.

To be clear, this is good shabu shabu, and your mileage may vary, but for me, it just isn't going to satisfy the shabu shabu jones. That said, the couple at the next table had the sukiyaki... which smelled fantastic... so it appears that a return trip will be in order.


can u please give me some recommendation for great food in tokyo japan since we plan to go there this weekend.


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