Finding the Shabu For You

Harvard Square boils over with two new Japanese hot pot restaurants, spicing up the local culinary fare

In tough times, there is nothing quite like a moment in the lap of luxury. But comfort can get expensive. Fond of facials? Book yourself a spa treatment—a phone call later and you’ve dropped $50 at Pyara. Ladies and gentlemen, I’m here to announce that I have stumbled upon one of the best-kept secrets in the business of steamed pampering. It lies at the intersection of stress management, fine dining, and salon services: at a shabu-shabu restaurant a facial comes rolled up, or rather, bubbling out of, your Japanese hot pot dinner.

ABOUT A HOT POT

The hot pot meal is a comfort food tradition widespread throughout Asia, though shabu-shabu specifically refers to the Japanese version. The basic rubric includes a steaming pot of broth (usually beef, chicken, or miso) kept boiling over a tabletop electric burner in which one drops vegetables, followed by raw pieces of top sirloin beef, chicken, tofu, or, less traditionally, seafood. The cooked chunks are then fished out, dunked in ponzu (a combination of soy and citrus) or sesame sauce mixed by the preparer, and consumed over a bowl of rice. Loosely translated, the name means “swish-swish,” is perhaps meant to imitate the sound of the bits of food as they hit the boiling water.

“Shabu-shabu was historically eaten by Genghis Kahn and his hordes of fierce warriors as they trekked across the harsh terrains of Central Asia,” touts the Web site of the square’s latest addition to its shabu landscape, Shabu-Ya. The restaurant is owned by the same guys who operate another Asian fusion restaurant directly below Shabu-Ya, Shilla. According to one over-eager, smiley waiter, soldiers made the first hot pot out of their general’s helmet. “However, you don’t have to endure the life of a warrior to enjoy this simple, delicious dish.” Fact? I think not. One ill-fated Friday night, my dinner experience at the three-month old Shabu-Ya was akin to what I imagine one might have endured at the Baths of Caracalla in Ancient Rome.

STEAMBATH FOR THREE

Two unassuming, unnamed, but thankfully adventurous eaters accompanied me to the wasteland of a building that houses Staples along with much of Harvard Square’s own Little Asia. Between Wagamama, Bombay Café, Shilla, 9 Tastes and Om, this stretch of JFK Street is a hot pot of its own. We ascended a single dismal flight of stairs, passed the noticeably empty noodle joint, Wagamama (perhaps, thanks to this reviewer), and an eyebrow-raising view into the seedy kitchen of the Bombay Café, only to find ourselves filled with trepidation at the doorstep of Shabu-Ya. The restaurant’s psychedelic décor creates an aura one might situate somewhere between the Jetsons’ house and a Food Network set. To quote one recent Harvard diner, “It’s like Little Tokyo over Staples.” Although reservations weren’t necessary, the place was fairly packed for dinner. As either a party restaurant or a date destination, shabu-style dining does the trick—it ensures lots interactive fun and the discussion that goes with it.

But, here’s the clincher: “Our interior design concept places you right inside a pot of shabu-shabu,” says the restaurant’s self-analyzing Web site. “The pink and green seating invokes the meats and vegetables while the playful light fixtures bring to mind the bubbles in a boiling pot of broth.” Nothing could be closer to the truth. In true foodie form, each of us proceeded to order one of the various shabus. Playing it safe, I opted for a mixed tofu platter and miso broth. Options include the classic chicken or beef stock, and, in a gesture towards Vietnam, tom yum. Something about having to monitor simmering raw chicken tenders gave me the willies. An inordinate number of minutes later, our waiter returned to our hot pink booth with the pots, and we began to dunk away.

At this moment in most restaurants reviews, the reviewer usually waxes poetic on the quality of the meal, its highlights and disappointments outlined in detail. But that night, the occurrence of a sauna effect in our circular enclave in the restaurant’s windowed corner combined with my inability to grip my pen through my drenched palms prohibited me from tasting much or taking meaningful notes. As the rising steam opened wide our pores and nostrils to the scents of soy and sesame, I instead wrote notes to my fellow diners in the condensation on the windows behind us. The restaurant desperately needs some form of soundtrack (the B-52s, anyone?) beyond the sound of bubbles and diner laughter. Definitely wash the shabu down with one of the bar’s stellar plum, raspberry, or lychee saketinis which, trust me when I say, will prove a real lifesaver as your steam bath progresses. The other menu items are fairly typical, although the sushi option provides a welcome respite from your shabu shower or a decent alternative for the shabu-wary. Shabu-Ya is absolutely not inexpensive (especially if you do appetizers and drinks), but at around $35 a head plus a facial, it comes in a helluva lot less than a trip to Pyara.

Down Winthrop Street from Shabu-Ya is Shabu Square, quietly located at the corner of Eliot Street. The menu at this far less expensive knock-off is based on a similar template of shabu plus other pan-Asian delights. The stark décor and often-challenged food—despite some successful personalizable noodle dishes—are probably not worth the 15 bucks, though rest assured that the ceiling height facilitates a fairly steam-free shabu experience. That being said, if you’re brave enough to lean out over the fake wood table so as to position your face directly above your hot pot, you may just have found the most economical hybrid spa/restaurant special around.

CHECK, PLEASE

When I left school last spring before studying abroad in France, the land of cheese and chocolate, Harvard Square was shabu-free. I returned to what seemed like shabu-ville, with a higher concentration of the joints than should be allowed in a single block. Any time a real restaurant wants to park its pot in the Square, I’d welcome more than a bowl of soup.