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Shabu-Zen

The soup is definitely on
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  July 30, 2008
3.0 3.0 Stars
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TABLE BROTH: The wagyu beef, boneless short-rib, and Seafood Supreme are cooked to order.

SHABU-ZEN | 617.782.8888 | 80 Brighton Avenue, Allston | Open Sun & Mon, 11:30 am-11 pm; Tuesday, 5–11 pm; Wed & Thurs, 11:30 am–11 pm; and Fri & Sat, 11 am–midnight | AE, DI, MC, VI | Beer and wine | No valet parking; private parking lot behind restaurant | Street-level access
I am a reluctant convert to shabu-shabu. My initial reaction to the Japanese version of the Mongolian hot-pot was that boiled foods are bland, and that boiling food at the table is even worse than cooking at home. But a new generation of Japanese water-fondue restaurants has won me over. Not only have these newer places improved the blandness of the broth with flavored pan-Asian choices and sharper dipping condiments, they’ve also increased the complexity of the raw materials.

Plus, I’ve finally mastered the eating and cooking techniques involved. The secret is that the broth at the end is superb, so you want to use the protein and vegetables from the entrées as appetizers, then sate yourself with the soup mixture from the boiling water. Before I learned this trick, I would leave the broth bubbling away on the table cooker. Now I ask for a container to take it home.

With its second location — the first is in Chinatown — Shabu-Zen has refined the process with ceramic heating elements (no fumes) at each table, and added choices in the protein area. Its food selection and presentation is still a bit behind the Chinatown Kaze, but there is much to enjoy here, and this huge space fills up with Asian families even on a weeknight.

If you want formal appetizers, there are dozens, and some are choice and well-priced. Light eaters could skip shabu-shabu altogether. Seaweed salad ($2.50), for instance, is sesame-rich and delicious, as well as healthful. Sautéed baby clams ($6.50) are a wonderful plateful of small calico clams in a gravy-like sauce with some meaty and spicy elements. Baby octopus ($3.95) in a light tomato marinade is tasty. As are “Berkshire sausages” ($5), presumably made from the heritage Berkshire swine. These are four scrumptious breakfast links on a leaf of Napa cabbage, served with mustard.

You could also have a bit of sashimi, but the hamachi (yellowtail) ($6) was served barely thawed. The effect of the cold hamachi was that its fat content registered as a waxy texture. I suspect much of the food here is partially frozen to make easier and neater slices. Indeed, cubes of soft tofu came to the table frozen, and had to be cooked in the soup.

Speaking of which, the waitress brought a divided pot of two kinds of broth to our table for the shabu-shabu and turned on the heat. The default is light beef broth (no charge), but for $3 one can have Chinese herbal, Chinese spicy, Thai tom yum, or kimchee at three levels of intensity. We had the first two. The Chinese herbal had a tea bag of spices and scattered small red berries. It was dry with a hint of cinnamon, and after the meat and vegetables had been poached in it, it tasted like a lovely Vietnamese pho broth. The Chinese spicy had some red oil and six floating dried chilies. Its initial flavor was hotter than the final effect, as the red oil mostly came out with the food. In the end, we blended them together.

Most of the shabu-shabu entrées start with a plate of vegetable matter: lots of Napa cabbage and cress; one piece each of broccoli, tofu, carrot, and bean-curd skin; enoki mushrooms; a slice of an unusual mushroom; a section of corn on the cob; and two squares of hard tofu. Each diner also has a choice of starches: a sizeable bowl of rice (sticky and aromatic), a half-bowl of udon noodles, or about the same proportion of fine bean-thread vermicelli. Save these for last.

One big innovation at Shabu-Zen is the addition of fancy Japanese beef ($68/“Japan A”; $48/“B”; $28/“Australian” — likely wagyu raised down under). The Phoenix invested in the A, and it was quite good. This beef is so highly marbled that the white fat is the field color, and the light red stripes of lean muscle are the marbling. When poached lightly, it’s beefy and wonderful. Regular beef, sampled on the surf and turf ($16.95), was mostly red, also had a lot of marbling (the usual white), and cooked up tougher, but was certainly easy to eat and well-flavored. I am going to guess it was chuck London broil. Your other meat choices on the surf and turf are chicken, pork, or lamb.

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