Cook up your own ideas at Shabu-Zen

Chinatown is becoming a misnomer. Not only does the neighborhood boast Vietnamese, Thai, Malaysian, Taiwanese and Korean eateries but now there’s a shabu-shabu restaurant, Shabu-Zen.

Purportedly named for the swish-swish sound of paper-thin shards of raw beef swirled through simmering stock, shabu-shabu is Japanese fondue. It’s a cook-your-own feast of meats, fish and vegetables that you accessorize with different ingredients, sauces and starches.

“I couldn’t have gone into business if I had to deal with a chef,” confides owner David Yee, with mock seriousness, to a curious customer. “Here, everyone is his own chef.”

Yee, whose parents once owned a Polynesian eatery on Boylston Street, and his wife, Reiko Kuba, opened Shabu-Zen two months ago. It’s similar, she says, to restaurants back in her native Japan, where the couple met.

Cook meal

They couldn’t have done much courting at the local shabu-shabu shack. It’s not an experience that’s conducive to conversation – at least not at Shabu-Zen, where almost everyone is seated at a counter . . . and yakking on a cell phone. Your main focus isn’t your dining companion; it’s a stainless steel basin of hot fish-pork broth, sunk into the laminated countertop in front of you.

There’s a plethora of plates for you to keep track of – plates of sauce ingredients, plates of raw products to be poached, plates to eat out of and plates on which to rest your utensils. Plus, there’s a gaggle of glasses and cups – for water, wine, beer, soft drinks, smoothies and tea. I spilled my sake three times navigating through the tableware minefield.

Just like in Zen, concentration pays off. Especially since you’re behind the stove – ahem, the hotpot.

The easiest (and most economical) way to order is to select one of the combination dinners on the front of the menu. Try the rib of beefsteak – shaved slices of beef – for $14.95 or the meat combo (three choices from sirloin, pork, chicken or lamb) for $10.95. The $10.95 seafood platter consists of salmon, cod, scallop, fish cake and squid. For an additional $5, you get prawns and tiny Manila clams in the seafood supreme.

Each of these entrees comes with a platter of veggies, tofu and minced fish meatballs. They’re also accompanied by tiny ramekins of soy, hot chilies, scallions, Chinese Sa Cha BBQ sauce and garlic that you mix and match to create your own dipping sauce. You also get a choice of udon noodles, steamed rice or rice vermicelli.

Supper couldn’t be easier or more nutritious. Using chopsticks, a soup spoon and/or a wire cage spoon with a long, skinny handle, you simmer your ingredients in the pot of bubbling broth until they’re done, dip them into your personalized sauce and then transfer them into a small bowl – or onto the rice, udon or vermicelli – and finally into your mouth. When you’re just about to burst, you slurp down the flavorful stock.

Do as Japanese patrons do and request sesame sauce for dunking. Or as Korean patrons do and request spicy kimchee broth ($2). Customize your combos with a la carte extras from the back of the menu, like rounds of beef tongue ($3.95) so transparent you can almost see through them, or spongy, cocoa-colored pork meatballs ($2). Try a sheaf of enoki mushrooms ($2.50), a trio of briny oysters ($4) or carmine-tipped triangles of surf clam ($3.50). Be careful not to overcook: Chicken-scallion meatballs ($2) take longer than tripe ($2.95). Mushrooms wilt; corn on the cob doesn’t.

Combination dinners include chilled, sweet red bean and barley “soup” for dessert. You also can opt for ice cream ($2), or a fruit smoothie ($3.50), whipped up from heavy cream, sugar syrup and strawberries, mango, peach, kiwi, lychee or rambutan. There’s a serviceable beer and wine list, including Hakasan Draft Sake ($7), cold, crisp and brewed in California.

Shabu-Zen is Zenlike indeed, with its unassuming decor (vanilla walls, bright lights and a sparkling clean open kitchen) and minimalist service. At fancier shabu-shabu dens, the staff takes a more hands-on role, skimming your broth and helping you with the cooking. Here you’re on your own.

But less can be more – particularly when you’re paying so little for so much food. Here’s a meal that’s inexpensive, healthy, delicious and fun! What more do you need to know about Shabu-Zen?

Hours: Daily, Lunch: 11:45 a.m.-3:30 p.m., Dinner: 5-11 p.m.

Bar: Beer and Wine

Credit: MasterCard and Visa

Parking: Nearby lots, on street

Accessibility: Stairs

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