Steps from the Space Needle and the Seattle Center sits the stylish little Roaring Bowl, where counter seats and tables are all equipped with induction burners. If you know what you ask for, it's the gateway to a wide world of em>robatayaki (slow-grilled skewered meat and fish), gamjatang (spicy pork bone soup), and the focus of this article: shabu-shabu.
Shabu-shabu is similar to hot pot, except that you extract your fillings from the simmering dashi (broth) made from kombu (kelp), then dip them in ponzu (citrus) or goma (sesame) sauce, making the meal a little more varied in flavor. (Shabu-shabu is also different than sukiyaki, in which you cook beef in a sweet sauce of sugar, sake, and soy sauce, then dip it in raw egg.) In fact, shabu-shabu is Japanese onomatopoeia for the sound that results when you take a thin slice of meat with your chopsticks (not letting go) and "swish-swish" it through the broth.
You can add vegetables and tofu to the broth when you'd like, as they can take a few minutes to cook, and meanwhile start swishing the meat. Once you finish these, heat up the pre-cooked udon, and likewise dip it in your choice of sauce, which you can gussy up with yakumi (condiments) such as garlic, daikon with chile pepper, togarashi (chile powder), or sliced green onions.
Roaring Bowl's menu forces you to make some decisions. There are five cooking broths—a wakame broth similar to their "traditional seaweed broth," whereas the spicy miso, Szechuan peppercorn, and sukiyaki broths are more like a hot pot experience, in that they're strongly-flavored enough that you might opt to skip the ponzu or sesame dip post-swish. And then there are a number of protein options, including beef (chuck eye and Wagyu short rib, with lots of desired marbling), pork belly, lamb, dumplings (pork and shrimp), and mixed seafood. (There's also a vegetarian option.) All come with a personal plate of vegetables, tofu, and udon noodles.
Wanting variety, I chose a combination plate of Painted Hills Chuck Eye Beef and Kurobuta Pork Belly ($19), and mixed it up even more with a split bowl of broth: Traditional Seaweed and Spicy Miso. (I also sampled the Wakame broth, the dashi fishier from the addition of bonito, and the Szechuan Peppercorn, which was especially good with meats and noodles.)
The food comes fast, with the beef and pork fresh from the meat slicer. Your server should adjust the temperature of your cooking broth, though you can reach for the controls and do that for yourself. I liked the simplicity of the seaweed broth as a way to enjoy the dipping sauces (I generally recommend sesame for meat, and ponzu for vegetables), though ultimately I preferred the non-traditional spicy miso broth, which was rich and earthy, with a welcome hit of heat. The variety of fresh vegetables keeps things interesting, as my plate had cabbage (Napa is standard, but a delivery mix-up resulted in the firmer green cabbage pictured on the plate), carrots, green onions, baby greens, enoki and shiitake mushrooms, and kabocha squash.
Roaring Bowl departs from tradition in giving each diner a bowl of rice at the start, which can serve as the "plate," similar to the technique at a traditional Chinese restaurant. You can save the rice for a soupy finish, but I do that with the udon noodles, taking advantage of the intense flavors of the long-cooked broth.
Overall, I'm impressed with the quality of the shabu-shabu at Roaring Bowl right out of the gate. It's a meal that requires an open mind and a little bit of learning (the servers can help, giving you preparation and eating instructions, along with the electronic timers that help you keep track of your cooking), but in the end, shabu-shabu is healthy (note the lack of oil), fun, and interactive—with both the ingredients and your dining companions.
About the author: Jay Friedman is a Seattle-based freelance food writer who happens to travel extensively as a sex educator. An avid fan of noodles (some call him "The Mein Man"), he sees sensuality in all foods, and blogs about it at his Gastrolust website. You can follow him on Twitter @jayfriedman.