As we sat at the bar in Shabu Pub, a procession of implements arrived, and the black-lacquered slab before us was transformed into the altar for an elaborate ritual whose rites we hadn't yet learned. First came the propane burner, then a bucket filled with ladles and skimmers. Then our teenaged waiter ferried over an aluminum bowl divided in half, which he set on the burner without sloshing out the hot broths within. One half contained a cloudy, weak miso broth, the other spicy miso capped in a millimeter of crimson oil. The waiter turned a knob — click, click, click, shhhhhh — and a blue gas flame quickened the steam flowing up out of the bowl.
Next, he brought out bowls filled with vegetables and loops of half-cooked udon noodles, followed by eating bowls and chopsticks, around which he arranged tiny bowls of ponzu sauce and peanut sauce. He disappeared as the broth began bubbling, and we dumped shiitake mushrooms, supermarket baby carrots, and napa cabbage leaves into the pot to cook and lifted up the lids of the condiment jars on the bar to identify the sauces inside: a fierce chile purée, garlic-infused soy sauce, and shacha (aka "Chinese barbecue") sauce, with its distinct dried-shrimp funk. Finally, the cook who had greeted us from his slicer station at the door walked back to our spot carrying platters of paper-thin slices of raw beef and lamb whose color echoed the red of the paper lanterns hanging over the bar. Our shabu shabu meal could now begin.
Of course, it wasn't quite shabu shabu, at least as far as most diners in Japan would recognize. The DIY meal, in which diners swish-swish (shabu-shabu ) thin slices of beef in hot water or broth to quickly cook it, has been popular in Japan since the middle of the 20th century, reportedly a Nipponization of Chinese hot pot. But the shabu shabu boom taking place in the western neighborhoods of the city — Shabu Pub, Shabu Lounge, G Cube Cafe, Prime Rib Shabu, all of them capitalizing on the success of 4-year-old Shabu House — is tweaking the hot pot all over again. The new restaurants, almost all of which are owned by Chinese-Americans, pair a New World disrespect for tradition with America's love of all-you-can-eat.
So the meal at 6-month-old Shabu Pub, one of the newest of the new shabu restaurants, resembles the decorations: Japanese cloth panels, Chinese tchotchkes, a photo of the Bay Bridge on one wall. Some of the elements of a traditional meal are here — the thinly sliced spare rib, the lemony ponzu, the tufts of enoki mushrooms — but so are taro cubes and daikon rounds, lamb (unheard of in Japan, one Japanese food writer told me), and peanut sauce in place of the traditional sesame. Shabu Pub's spicy miso broth would rival Sichuan hot pots in Chengdu for its gasp-inducing potency.
The all-you-can-eat option, which includes seafood such as fake crab and oysters, costs $24.95. But after gorging myself on another place across the park, I stuck with Shabu Pub's large $18.95 combo meal (prime rib, short rib, and lamb). Truth be told, it was nothing special. The meat was sliced so thinly it fell apart as we tried to scoop up the slices, and the prime rib and lamb, which lacked the wide stripe of fat in the short rib, tasted mealy and indistinct. The rest of the cooking I could credit or blame only on myself; one reason for the shabu boom, I suspect, is that labor costs are minimal.
Each of the four restaurants I visited takes its own liberties with shabu shabu, from the sake broth and chicken at Shabu Lounge (2407 Judah at 29th Ave.) to the "awesome sauce" at Prime Rib Shabu House (308 Fifth Ave. at Clement), which contains a morass of cilantro, green onions, and green chiles. The constant among all the restaurants: the relaxed tempo of the meals. Eating with a date or a group of friends, it's hard to finish in less than a couple of hours. There's always one more piece of beef to dip into the broth, one more mushroom that needs time to soften and become permeated with broth.
Eating alone, as I did on my last shabu outing to G Cube Cafe, the pace became almost meditative. There seemed no point in ordering the all-you-can-eat-and-drink meal ($38), so a $15 combo set of beef and lamb sufficed. With its lime-green and purple walls and the J-pop karaoke videos on the TV — if you can't help singing along, you can move to a karaoke room in back — G Cube hews most closely to the Japanese model of shabu shabu. Instead of bringing a profusion of Chinese condiments, the waitress brought only a thick sesame-peanut sauce and a light ponzu sauce, along with grated daikon and chopped scallions to stir into the latter. The vegetable bowl was practically minimalist: enough napa cabbage to feed a family of guinea pigs for a week, plus a clump of enoki mushrooms, a few spinach leaves, soft tofu, and three kinds of noodles (yam-starch, udon, and ramen). The meat available — ribeye, lamb, and kurobuta pork — so swirled with fat they looked like they were picked for their ability to mesmerize the hallucinogen-addled.
Once the cabbage softened and the noodles turned slinky and stretchy, I began picking up slices of the meat and dipping them into the rich miso broth, where the meat shriveled and contracted, then melted on the tongue. A breeze coming through the open front door sent the cloud of soybean-scented steam across the table, haloing my face. I had expected solo shabu shabu to be a lonely meal, but the conversation between me and the pot never faltered. After an hour, I ladled out one last bowl of miso soup, twice as rich as when I first tasted it, and asked for the check.