Restaurant Review: Shabu Fondue

Story and photos by Mark Sterling-Ogle, Dec. 4, 2014.

Thinly sliced Wagyu beef. Photo by Mark Sterling-Ogle.

Chef and local restaurant entrepreneur Jonny Chu — of Sochu House and Red Thai — has something new simmering. He’s transformed and moved his Asian fondue T. Spot (formerly Tein Wong) to central Phoenix after closing its doors in Chandler.

Hot pot fondue is nothing new in Eastern culture — it dates back more than a thousand years. It originated in Mongolia (where the main ingredients were such meats as beef, mutton or horse), spread throughout China during the Tang Dynasty and became quite popular by the time of the Qing Dynasty.

On the eve of our nuptials (yes folks, I am a married man now) I convinced my intended to expand his horizons and give hot pot fondue a try.

In early September, Shabu Fondue opened next door to Red Thai, in fact sharing the same entryway. Unlike its sister restaurant, with its massive television screens behind the bar, once you pass through a gilded side door, the long dining area is serene and dimly lit. A clutch of ruby red parasols float overhead, accented by dangling glass teardrops with flickering lights.

Cream cheese wontons with raspberry puree. Photo by Mark Sterling-Ogle.

A wall of layered mirrors flanks one side whilst geisha art adorns the other, and provides an illusion of expansiveness to the narrow space. Plush burgundy booths line the room and a blue-lighted Buddha head sits atop a pedestal at the end of a communal table.

There is a limited beer and wine menu on each table, but our server was happy to bring over the cocktail list from next door, providing us with many more options. My partner picked out the Mr. Chu, a pineapple based vodka concoction ($18), while I spied my favorite type of sake, Nigori, which is unfiltered and has a slight milky sweetness ($16).

After returning with our drinks, our charming server began to explain just how dining at Shabu Fondue works. First, your party chooses from more than nine types of broth, including pork- or chicken-based as well as vegetarian options.

I suggest the Yin & Yang option — two bubbling broth flavors in a divided pot. All of the broths are simmered for more than 10 hours to extract all of the essential flavors. There are no oils and all are gluten and MSG free.

Simmering bok choy and broccoli. Photo by Mark Sterling-Ogle.

With the help of our very informative server, we decided on the house Chinese herbal broth, with sliced ginger, goji berries, dates and whole cloves of garlic as well as the spicy lemongrass with orange and jalapeno slices. Broths for basting run $4.95, and it’s only an extra buck for the duo.

Parties of two are encouraged to order two or three proteins, one or two vegetables and one or two rice or noodle options to start. Even though we were very hungry, our server noted that it was best to start with these and add additional selections as needed.

Several beef items are available, angus NY ($7.98), organic grass-fed ($8.98) and even beef tongue ($6.68), but I wanted some of the best and went with the Wagyu beef, ($13.98) — literally “Japanese cow.” The beef is frozen before being carved to give very thin slices and curls when cut and is served in the same loopy curls.

Although there are many seafood offerings, such as squid ($6.98), razor clams ($6.68), scallops ($8.68) and blue crab ($8.98), we played it safe and ordered the sweet shrimp ($5.98). And I couldn’t pass on the Kurobuta pork belly ($5.98).

For our vegetables, we played it safe once again; skipping such exotic items as Chrysanthemum leaves ($3.98), Korean pumpkin ($3.98) and taro ($2.68), which Johnny Chu himself described much like a sweet potato when he stopped by to answer some questions. Instead, we chose the broccoli ($3.98) and baby bok choy ($3.98).

Yin and Yang broth in a divided pot. Photo by Mark Sterling-Ogle.

Jasmine rice ($1.98), udon noodles ($3.68) and a variety of other noodles ($2.68-$3.98) are listed, and yet we went with the straightforward rice noodle ($2.98). Traditionally, the noodle or rice is added to the remaining broth — cooking all the selections enhances the essence of the already flavorful — to be enjoyed as a soup to top off the meal.

After ordering, the broth-filled hot pot is delivered and the induction plate is switched on, boiling away, releasing wonderful aromas and whetting the palate in no time. A cart with your selections and cooking ingredients follows close behind and delivered to the tabletop. We were informed that the broccoli and bok choy would take longest to cook and should go in first, followed by the shrimp, which would take about two minutes. The thinly sliced beef and pork belly take mere seconds, dipped into the simmering pot with provided tongs or chopsticks. Then, you simply “swish, swish” or in Japanese “shabu, shabu” and you are ready to go. Soy and a sesame dipping sauces with a hint of nuttiness are provided as well.

I was glad I followed the lead of our server and didn’t over order, we were filled to the gills by the time all was said and done. But the tiny cream cheese-filled sweet wontons ($5), fried golden brown and surrounded by a raspberry puree, were perhaps the best suggestion of our visit. They provided just enough bite sized, crunchy sweetness to finish an already perfect meal.

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