If there’s any sort of Zen mastery thing going on in restaurants, it’s usually experienced by the chefs, who after all are the ones who have grilled 10,000 fillets to a perfect medium rare, or know instinctively the couple of seconds when a piece of sauteed halibut is neither too flaky nor too raw. The rest of us just get to eat the results.
Then there’s satori through shabu-shabu , in which you whisk beef and vegetables through boiling water to the precise degree of doneness you prefer. This is popular in Japan. The sheer minimalism of shabu-shabu , in which the unmarinated raw materials are cooked individually in plain water, allows an austere purity unattainable with either Swiss beef fondue or Northern Chinese hot-pot. When the beef is good, you’ve got it made.
Shabu-Shabu House may be the cleanest restaurant in Los Angeles--obsessively clean, all spotless floors in well-scrubbed wood, immaculately clothed kitchen workers, walls and vents that gleam like Zsa Zsa’s forehead. The long, marble-look counter is not just wiped clean between customers, but burnished to a high shine. Even by Japanese standards (Shabu-Shabu House occupies a storefront in Little Tokyo’s Japanese Village Plaza walking mall) the restaurant is pristine.
When you sit down at the counter, a man takes your drink order, sets potfuls of water to bubbling on electric burners in front of each stool and walks to the other end of the U-shaped counter to skim the froth out of other customer’s caldrons. A young man in a gargantuan green toque slices an enormous rib eye as thinly as prosciutto; the rich marbling of the pink flesh is visible even from across the room.
You are brought a platter of the sliced meat and a basket of vegetables: daikon and carrots cut into neat slivers; leaves of tender, young spinach; stiff, white fans of Chinese cabbage, ready to be blanched just long enough to wilt the leaves; bundles of tiny enoki mushrooms; elegant snips of scallion tops. For the end of the meal, when the water has absorbed flavor from the vegetables and beef, there are cubes of tofu and slippery tangles of yam noodles and pencil-thick udon noodles.
These are the menu choices at Shabu-Shabu House: plenty of beef; still more beef; prime beef. If you have not eaten shabu-shabu before, Yoshi, the owner, will instruct you in the intricacies of the art.
“If you do not mind,” he says, “I will show you the very authentic way to eat shabu-shabu. First, the sauce. Do you like garlic?”
You nod ascent, and he stirs raw minced garlic into the small bowl of sesame sauce in front of you. He spoons grated daikon into a bowl of a tart, citric soy vinaigrette. Then he plucks a slice of beef off your plate, drags it through the boiling water just long enough to frost the rosy meat with white, drains it with a tap to the side of the pot and smooshes it well into the sesame sauce.
“Three seconds only for medium-rare,” he says, “five for medium. For vegetables, maybe 10 or 15 seconds.”
He takes another slice of beef and runs it quickly back and forth through the water. “Hear the sound it makes? Shabu-shabu; shabu-shabu; shabu-shabu. “
When you pop the first bite into your mouth you may be astounded: the beef flavor is of an intensity associated more with dry aged Beverly Hills porterhouse steaks than with $9.97 Little Tokyo dinner specials. Though shabu-shabu meals approaches $30 in L.A.'s fancier Japanese restaurants, Shabu-Shabu House charges less than 6 bucks for it at lunch. The plate of meat looks enormous, but disappears very quickly.
Yoshi sighs. “I certainly make no money on prime rib,” he says. “The beef is so expensive, and I sell it so cheap. But this is a shabu-shabu house, and I have to have it around.”
Dessert is a glass of delicious, strong iced coffee, made from UCC dark-roasted beans the restaurant imports from Japan and grinds freshly every day. It’s a Zen sort of thing, this coffee.
Shabu-Shabu House, 127 Japanese Village Plaza Mall on 2nd Street, Los Angeles, (213) 680-3890. Beer available. Lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $20-$35.