I glanced over at my tablemate as she proceeded to add one ingredient after another into her pot of simmering broth. Vegetables, tofu, meat, udon noodles — all of it left to languish in the roiling concoction like some kind of Yankee Doodle Stew.
"You're doing it wrong," I said in a tone that I hoped would convey both import and alarm.
"I don't care," she countered with a sly grin that suggested that she really did not care.
It took a centuries-old Asian tradition to finally deliver a brand new dining experience to Cleveland. Yes, a diner can find shabu-shabu at one or two restaurants in town, but the brand new Ushabu is a single-minded adventure built around Japanese hot pot. Every aspect of the tranquil, elegant and spare Tremont dining room has been configured around the interactive, immersive and pleasurable act of cooking meat in broth.
There might be no perfect way to enjoy shabu-shabu, but there most certainly is a wrong way. Diners will look to the servers at this young restaurant to guide them through the intimidating process, a conversation and exchange that will continue to develop and improve as time goes on, says general manager Michael Flaherty.
"With a tiny place and small staff you can really create a culture where you're training people, bringing them up to be very attentive to detail, very hospitable and gracious."
Traditionally, Japanese hot pot is a communal dining experience, one during which diners huddle around a single pot of simmering broth. Though Ushabu gives each and every diner his or her own induction burner, thereby eliminating the need to commingle comestibles, the intimate 25-seat setting combined with the atypical endeavor preserves the collective nature of the meal.
Diners start by choosing a broth and a protein. The soup base options include chicken ginger, spicy miso and kombu-based (and vegan-friendly) dashi. Those more familiar with Chinese or Korean style hot pots will find that shabu-shabu broths are significantly milder in flavor (some use plain water) so as not to overpower the subtle tastes of the high-end meats and seafood. That said, management has tweaked each recipe since opening day in response to comments.
Protein choices are Berkshire pork ($20), Ohio Wagyu beef ($23), Australian lamb ($20), a combination thereof ($22) and seafood ($26). A vegetable-only version ($17) also is available. Servers sink heavy enameled vessels into the recessed burner, fill each one with the appropriate broth, and set down a wide bowl brimming with spotless vegetables, a dish of steamed rice and a trio of sauces.
Once the pot hits a nice simmer, go ahead and drop in items like the assorted varieties of mushrooms, carrot, radish, corn and napa cabbage as they'll cook slowly and help flavor the broth. But thin-shaved meats like that beautifully marbled beef and pork literally cook in seconds, so a quick dip into the brew is all it takes. The same holds true for the thinly sliced scallops, flounder and salmon in the seafood option, but the hard-shelled clams and meaty head-on shrimp on the same plate will take longer to fully cook.
Cooked veggies, meats and seafood are dipped into sauces like sweet sesame, ponzu and soy-vinegar and eaten with rice. The tangle of thick and chewy udon noodles at the bottom of the vegetable bowl is typically saved for late in the meal, when it gets added to the broth and enjoyed last.
As subtle and sublime as the shabu-shabu is, it's the small plates that arrive first that make the biggest impact. The stunning and innovative Asian dishes from chef de cuisine Jacob Cohen appear like art and unfold into delicious gratification. Sweet and briny clams ($10) are frothed with uni foam and garnished with "edible sand," an umami-rich blend of panko, dried anchovies and shichimi togarashi. Succulent cubes of seared Wagyu beef ($12) come with wasabi-spiked edamame puree. Scallop ($9), pork belly, quail egg and caviar somehow unite in perfect harmony. Taiwanese-style five-spice chicken ($8) is paired with pickles and slaw.
Do yourself a favor and make reservations as early as possible. Ushabu has just a few booths and a handful of seats at the bar. Smaller parties will be seated at the bar or paired with other small parties in booths. Who knows, your new friends might even share their (BYOB for now) bottle of wine or sake with you.
Come January, the restaurant will add quicker lunches starring ramen and udon soups, donburi rice bowls, and crispy katsu plates.
As busy as Ushabu has been in the weeks since opening day, it will only get busier. It's hard to imagine a more winter-friendly destination than this steamy little Asian schvitz.