As the longest, coldest night of the year approaches, warmth, companionship, and comfort food assume a primal relevance made palpable by several millennia of genetic encoding. What is the holiday season, after all, but the lighting of candles and the burning of Yule logs to stave off the solstice’s prevailing gloom? On these crisp California evenings — yes, we have seasons too — the quest for fire is as emotionally relevant as it was to our pyrotechnical, pot-stirring forebears. We too yearn to gather ’round the blazing hearth, shoulder to shoulder, beakers of malt at hand, billows of steam and the fragrance of simmering viands warming body and soul alike.
Luckily, community-feasting options abound. Modern descendants of the one-pot culinary get-together range from Swiss fondue to Mongolian hotpot to the shabu-shabu of Japan, in which the ancient pleasures of collective cookery inspire cozy feelings of gustatory good fellowship. Like sukiyaki, mizutaki, and other examples of Japan’s nabe cuisine, shabu-shabu invites diners to cook ingredients to their taste in a communal vessel burbling atop the dining room table. The steamy warmth and effortless conviviality of the cooking process make shabu-shabu a favorite wintertime event in the old country.
Zabu Zabu, a sleek and intimate yet fun-loving Japanese restaurant tucked away in Berkeley’s University Walkway Plaza, takes this time-honored family-style cooking technique and turns it into high concept. Gleaming propane heating units supplant the charcoal braziers of yesteryear. The clean-lined ultramodern setting is accented with granite countertops, blond wood paneling, thatches of bamboo, and flat-screen TVs, lending a hipster-hangout ambience to the surroundings. The lounge motif carries over to the cobalt-colored cocktails, the ubiquitous small-plates menu, and the young, giggly, occasionally incompetent waitstaff.
We arrived on the premises ready to cook ‘n’ nibble, and after a quick introduction to the theory and practice of shabu-shabu dining, we jumped right in. Once our pot of kombu-flavored broth came to a simmer, we enhanced the cooking liquid with an array of tableside vegetables that included carrots, spinach, mushrooms, cabbage, sprouts, and cubes of fresh tofu. (For an additional charge you can get your broth spiked with sake, herbs, or spices as well.) The next step is the actual shabu-shabu-ing of the main course.
Zabu Zabu offers six versions of their signature dish, including prime rib eye, New Zealand lamb, chicken breast, and vegetarian; we opted for the seafood and the Japanese pork. The seafood variety is a cornucopia of prawns, mussels, scallops, squid, filets of snapper, even a few hunks of fake crab. You scoop the morsel of your choice into the simmering broth, and when it’s done to your preference you scoop it out, dip it into one of the two dipping sauces (a creamy sesame and a sweet-sour ponzu), and nosh. The pork is paper-thin and delicate; it cooks so quickly, you simply hold it underwater with your chopsticks for a few moments, dip and sup. The dipping step is crucial: although the basic cooking ingredients are of high quality, broth-boiling isn’t the most flavorsome of culinary preparations, and the delectable sauces add agreeable taste and dimension. Rice and noodles are provided for roughage. All in all it’s a festive way to celebrate with friends or break the ice on a first date, although the cooking process itself becomes a bit work-intensive after the first half-hour.
Our favorite menu offerings were the small plates. The baked mussels are sublime: half a dozen buttery, green-lipped bivalves served piping hot in a combination of broth, herbs, and cream that puts most oysters Rockefeller to shame. The seaweed salad is an ideally brisk complement — a spiky, palate-cleansing bundle of tangy greens strewn with sesame seeds and caviar and served atop a light, crisp wonton. The tempura is a perfectly light and crisp example of the genre, with sweet, fresh zucchini, carrots, broccoli, and jumbo prawns wrapped in a cumulonimbus of steam and crunch. The deep-fried soft-shell crab isn’t quite as potato-chip crisp as it should be, and the gyoza (potstickers) are nothing special. But the veggie yaki — thick chunks of eggplant, squash, and mushroom, skewered, draped in teriyaki sauce and grilled — brings out the vegetables’ essential flavors and makes a dreamy, wood-smoky aperitif.
At lunchtime the restaurant supplements its shabu-shabu bill of fare with Japanese classics like chicken, steak, and eggplant teriyaki, pork cutlets, and a variety of rice, ramen, and udon bowls. The chicken udon is especially restorative on a chilly winter’s day: a bountiful bowl of rich, dark broth, generous chunks of all-dark-meat chicken, a plenitude of thick chewy noodles, and flavor-enhancing shards of seaweed, scallion, spinach, and mushroom. And the unagi rice bowl single-handedly makes up for the occasionally mild nature of the shabu-shabu: set upon a bed of sticky rice, sesame seeds, carrot chunks, and broccoli is an oil-rich filet of glazed eel with all the briny flavors of the sea encapsulated in its gelatinous flesh; we liked it. Lunches come with either potstickers or soup and salad.
Zabu Zabu offers a vegetarian-friendly variation on each house specialty ranging from a veggie shabu-shabu with tofu, spinach, napa cabbage, and three varieties of mushroom to flesh-free udon, ramen, and rice bowls, sukiyaki, and teriyaki. The veggie-centric small plates, meanwhile, include edamame, deep-fried tofu, tempura onion rings, and those aforementioned potstickers and grilled vegetable skewers.
The shabu-shabu experience is especially festive if there’s a bottle to nip from between the dunking and the dipping and the scarfing. A dozen wines are available by glass and bottle along with several brews of beer and an impressive selection of cold boutique sakes (not to mention sake’s lounge-lizard stepchild, the saketini). This being an especially cool December’s eve, however, we opted for a large flask of the warm stuff and found it absolutely complementary to the prevailing cuisine and holiday spirit. After a few cups and an evening of community feasting, those shadows won’t seem so forbidding after all.