Photo by Anne FishbeinMost of us think of shabu shabu as a distinctly Japanese food, saturated with a dozen levels of ritual and a rigid politesse, flavored with spare condiments and the Japanese habit of finding the greatest possible pleasure in a gram and a half of raw protein. Anyone who has ever seen a Japanese gourmet swoon at the sight of a microtomed scallop of beef will understand. But to the Japanese, shabu shabu is only slightly less Western than a Big Mac. I might be imagining this, but the swagger of the chefs at the downtown restaurant Kagaya suggests, if not a Louis L'Amour scene transplanted to a Little Tokyo mini-mall, something at least a little cowboy-butch.
Water is heated in rugged, hammered-metal pots without handles, and you half expect that the cooks are going to snatch them off the flame with their bare hands; instead they pick them up with something that looks like a battered pair of pliers. A branding iron glowing at the back of the stove seems a mystery until a cook applies it to the top of a crème brûlée, instantly caramelizing the sugar into something resembling thin glass and sending thick plumes of white, marshmallow-scented smoke into the restaurant. Chefs regularly reach into scalding stovetop steamers to pick up superheated appetizer plates.
This isn't to say Kagaya is rustic: There's tasteful art, sleek wood instead of spotless Formica, hammered metal bowls instead of Kmart stainless steel. You'll find a selection of fine California cabernets in addition to the usual sake and beer; glistening heaps of fresh crab legs and scallops as well as the customary beef.
Kagaya is sort of a fancy place, and the shabu shabu is but the centerpiece of a multicourse meal. To start, perhaps there will be a slab of marinated halibut, then some miso soup with clams and a steamed shiitake mushroom garnished with intensely fragrant grated radish. The cooks sear tiny scallops of Kobe beef as if they were sliced lobes of foie gras, and serve them with a reduction sauce and a flourish.
The routine of a shabu shabu meal is well-established, and if you have ever spent time around a fondue pot, you will be at home here. A cook sets a basin of simmering broth onto an induction burner in front of your place at the counter, scented with a square of the Japanese seaweed kombu. Another cook slices raw beef -- USDA prime rib -- into transparent petals of meat; a third arranges vegetables (napa cabbage, fresh tofu, shiitake mushrooms, scallions, dark-green chrysanthemum leaves). One man in the kitchen seems to do nothing but skim the protein scum from the seething hot pots.
Basically, you swish a slice of the meat through the bubbling broth for a second or two, just until the vivid pink becomes frosted with white, then you dip it into one of the two sauces -- a basic, citrusy ponzu or a thin, fragrant paste of fish stock and ground sesame -- and then eat. If you've done it right, the texture is extraordinary, almost liquid, and the concentrated, sourish flavor of really good beef comes across as it does no other way. Shabu shabu can sometimes seem more like a haiku about meat than like the meat itself -- especially when your idea of beef is 26 ounces of bleeding porterhouse -- but there are times when all of us crave a heightened essence rather than gross, animal abundance.
(I have always wanted to taste Kobe beef, the ultraexpensive, ultramarbled meat of pampered Wagu cattle, but oddly enough, the Kobe beef here, available at $39 for five micron-thin slices, performed less well than the "ordinary" prime rib in the shabu shabu pot: The pricey marbling melted out of the beef in what seemed like a nanosecond, and the meat, which lacked intensity of flavor to begin with, acquired a loose, tough, unpleasantly grainy texture.)
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At the end, you dump in the glass noodles and all the vegetables, and simmer them into something like a vaguely meat-flavored stew -- unless, like me, you have been dumping them in all along -- and a chef finishes it all off by reducing the broth until it is thick, tossing in some rice and a shrimp or two, making a sort of delicious rice pottage.
Then, of course, comes the crème brûlée, which is very fine, or a soft, cool lozenge of green-tea mousse with thick cream. It is almost impossible to leave Kagaya hungry.
418 E. Second St., Little Tokyo; (213) 617-1016. Open for dinner Mon.Sat. Dinner for two, food only, $60$80. Beer and wine. Validated lot parking. AE, DC, MC, V. Recommended dish: shabu shabu.