Shabu-Shabu? The Pot Thickens.
Friday, December 1, 2006
Shabu-shabu was the first real Japanese meal I ever had, and oddly, I had it here.
I was a college student, visiting my lawyer boyfriend at his new job, and the old Japan Inn at Dupont Circle was in its glory days: the waitresses in formal kimonos, catering to diplomats and university faculty in discreet tatami rooms behind sliding shoji screens. No doubt I and my friend, a country boy with the heart of a gentleman and the fearlessness of the gauche, were out of the servers' usual ken, but by the end of the evening, our guide, though she spoke no English, had managed to convey the essentials.
Shabu-shabu, sometimes referred to as Japanese hot pot, actually refers to the style of cooking as well as the food produced, like fondue or barbecue. The traditional version begins with a ceramic or iron pot filled with stock -- usually dashi, the kelp- and bonito-flake-flavored version -- placed in the center of the table and brought to a simmer over an electric coil or butane heater. (The stock represents perhaps the most obvious difference between shabu-shabu and sukiyaki, which is simmered in a much sweeter broth.) A plate of prepped ingredients is brought to the table, including very thinly sliced raw beef, cabbage, onions, mushrooms, chrysanthemum leaves and tofu. Small bowls of dipping sauce, usually soy sauce, mirin and yuzu or lemon juice, are provided for each diner, along with a raw egg.
First into the pot go the onion and cabbage, as they take the longest to cook. (For this and all communal cooking, use the longer cooking chopsticks if provided.) Then the fun begins. Each diner swish-swishes slices of meat through the hot stock -- i.e., shabu-shabu-- and cooks them to the preferred degree. Meanwhile, he or she cooks whichever other ingredients are desired and removes them to the dipping bowl, from which they are eaten (with the personal chopsticks). As the meal progresses, the cooking flavors and the gradual evaporation turn the stock into a much more flavorful soup. (The egg can be beaten raw and added to the dipping sauce, as for sukiyaki; poached in the broth; or broken over and stirred into the dipping bowl, whatever you like.) At the end, fat, comfy-food udon noodles are added to the pot, heated through and served with the last broth.
Over the past several years, a Chinese version of shabu-shabu has become extremely popular not only in Hong Kong and Taiwan but in New York, San Francisco, Las Vegas and Los Angeles (where Kobe beef is the big spender's lure). In Rockville, journalist-turned-restaurateur Bob Liu of Bob's Noodle 66 has transformed the old Paisano's site on North Washington Street into Bob's 88 Shabu Shabu, which follows the Taiwanese model. That's only fair, since shabu-shabu was probably derived from Manchurian hot pot. (And, no, Liu is not a vintage car fan: 66 and 88 are considered lucky numbers in China.)
The Bob's 88 shabu-shabu experience is like but also unlike the traditional version: greatly varied, grandly portioned, almost raucously social, a kiddie magnet -- no elaborate kimono would be safe here -- and more rec room than tatami room.
Forget the portable stove: The tables at Bob's 88 have built-in burners, recessed in round sinks. Stainless-steel pots like asparagus steamers are filled by the servers from great teapots of chicken-based stock and set to boil.
There are 15 basic ingredient options, including beef, pork, lamb, lobster, tripe, shellfish and fish and various combinations; and three dozen extras, including additional portions of vegetables, noodles, pig's blood, tripe, tempura and dumplings. Each order comes with a huge plate of vegetables, including slices of corn on the cob, along with fish cakes and shrimp balls. After the first time, you may want to split one full order, pay the $5 sharing fee and get a supplementary portion. (Sharing not only saves your tummy, it's a bargain: Whole orders are $8.50 to $13.20, while the sides start at $1 for veggies, go to $2 or $2.50 for seafood and $6 for meat portions.)
Instead of the traditional dipping sauce, there's a condiment wagon of about a dozen choices from which you make your own: pureed white beans, chili sauce, vinegar (that's the red squeeze bottle), soy sauce, chopped leeks, sa cha sauce (Chinese "barbecue" sauce, a holdover from hot pot) and fish sauce.
You don't get udon noodles unless you order them separately; Bob's version comes with cellophane noodles, which can be a little tricky to retrieve with chopsticks. (Sometimes you get a little basket scooper, sometimes not.) And it might be nicer if the cabbage were not served in whole leaves, which are hard to handle and to consume.
This is one cheery joint. There are flat-screen TVs in the old Florida-room area and a full bar. Tables can accommodate six or even eight, with children grasping noodles, parents dangling babies and grandmothers sucking crab legs, and there's no scolding for spills. If your stock of stock runs low, the servers are happy to top it off.
For the cautiously adventurous: The tripe is pearly white, as thinly shaved as the meat and very mild. Crabs and lobsters are in the shell, so if you dislike getting your fingers into the act, you may miss some meat. (You can also get crabmeat in the dish.) Both the Arctic surf clams and Manila clams have been excellent. Pig's blood, which is a sort of sausage or aspic, not liquid, softens up in the soup and is tasty if you like offal.
All this, and Bob's still has a full Chinese menu, plus a little sushi and teriyaki, but why miss the fun? It's shabu-shabu, baby.
Bob's 88 Shabu Shabu 316 N. Washington St., Rockville; Metro: Rockville Phone:301-294-5888 Kitchen hours: Open Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m.-1 a.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Prices: Shabu-shabu, $8.50-$13.20 Wheelchair access: Good