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August 13, 2006

CoCoRo ... or ... Where's the Su?

Dominic Armato
Last night, I finally got around to checking out the other shabu shabu restaurant in town. Sadly, the proper phrase truly is "the other," as opposed to "another," but there it is.

In case you missed February's post, I adore shabu shabu. But between frequent trips to Japan and the years I spent in Los Angeles I've been somewhat spoiled, and the lack of many shabu shabu restaurants in Chicago has been something of a sore spot. You'd think boiled meat and vegetables with a couple of dipping sauces would be tough to screw up, but experience has taught me otherwise. Chiyo was quite good, but extremely expensive, and it subscribes to a goma su school of thought that just doesn't do it for me. So the quest for a satisfying Chicago-based shabu shabu continued last night at CoCoRo Shabu de Fondue.

Dominic Armato
I have to get this out of the way. I hate the name. I like to think that shabu shabu can stand on its own without needing to reference fondue. But then again, as previously mentioned, shabu shabu isn't exactly ubiquitous in Chicago, so perhaps that's naiveté on my part. Of course, this also might be the source of the name confusion. Though they've been CoCoRo Shabu de Fondue for years, their literature now reads "East Japanese Cuisine" and our server told us they were going by "CoCoRo East", so who knows. In any case, it's a fairly casual little joint, dark and modern, situated around a roughly-hewn stone monolith with a serene cascading trickle of water. There are perhaps 20 tables or so, with a small sushi bar at the back. In fact, CoCoRo serves a good deal of sushi, though the shabu shabu (and sukiyaki) is the star of the menu. The shabu shabu is sold for two, including a small salad, rice and a bit of fresh fruit for dessert.

Dominic Armato
We started with a bit of sashimi. It was... okay. Though the Chicago Tribune indicates that just about everybody is getting their fish from the same source, there's still a remarkable range of raw fish quality in the city as far as I can tell. Suffice it to say that while I had the craving and the sashimi satisfied, I won't be going to CoCoRo for the fish. When it comes to a Japanese meal preamble, I'm a sucker for a small salad of crisp iceberg lettuce (they seem to love iceberg lettuce in Japan), though I admit to being a little disappointed that the dressing was a light thousand island as opposed to something soy or ginger or miso-based. Of course, all that really mattered for the purposes of this trip was the shabu shabu, which was pretty good, even if it did leave me wanting in some regards.

Dominic Armato
The platter, which you see at the top, is fairly generous. For vegetables, CoCoRo provides watercress, shiitake mushrooms (though no enoki), green onions, carrot, daikon and a mountain of napa cabbage, along with tofu, noodles and the beef. The beef is prime ribeye, I believe, and pretty good quality, though like Chiyo it's sliced a touch thick for my tastes. More frustratingly, rather than being laid out in a single layer, it's folded over and extremely difficult to separate, resulting in a lot of shredded beef. A lot of that may have to do with the temperature. Though the beef is usually chilled quite cold to facilitate slicing, ours was icy when it hit the table. The ponzu sauce was unusually strong on the dashi and quite smoky, and served with minced green onion and chili daikon. Though the smokiness threw me a little, I actually enjoyed it. I also enjoyed the fact that the ponzu was unusually intense, which helped as it became slowly diluted by the cooking water. I wish more shabu shabu places would do this. The goma su, sadly, still left me wanting. It was a smooth sauce, very, very nutty with just a bit of sweetness, but the vinegar (the su) was almost completely undetectable. Why the Chicago joints leave the su out of the goma su, I don't know, but it frustrates me.

So does CoCoRo satisfy the shabu shabu jones? Yeah, it does. I still wish we had a cheap little shabu shabu bar in Chicago, but the last one that tried... Shabu Shabu House in Wrigleyville... crashed and burned a few years ago. CoCoRo strikes me as a tad expensive for what it offers, but if I could get over my goma su prejudices I might be able to enjoy it more. I'll go back when the mood strikes, but I'm hoping there are other spots in Chicago that I'm somehow missing. In the meantime, I might just have to start traveling with a tiny bottle of rice vinegar. I wouldn't be the stupidest thing I've done. I think.

CoCoRo Shabu de Fondue
668 N. Wells St.
Chicago, IL 60610
312-943-2220

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