Everyone gets a plate of vegetables and cellophane noodles, with a square of tofu, a flower of (I think) pounded rice, and tofu skin. The vegetables are very nice enoki mushrooms, another bunching mushroom I hadn’t seen elsewhere, a fresh shitake mushroom, Napa cabbage, baby corn, cress, shredded daikon and carrot, and thin-cut white onion.
Next comes the main shabu-shabu attraction: protein. Each day there’s a new special; ours was a combination of rib-eye beef and duck ($16), both cut thinner than sandwich meat. Adopting the method of my friend’s Japanese friends, we swished them quickly in broth (the literal meaning of shabu is “swish”) and dropped them, still a little pink in places, into the dips. The beef is perfect for this treatment; the duck, a little leaner and tougher when cooked, is likewise excellent. We also tried Kurabuta pork loin ($15), allegedly from heritage swine from Ohio. It may now be safe to eat pink pork, but the flavor remains even if you swish it a few extra times so that it’s well-done.
The seafood platter ($17) was quite unique, starting with a green bamboo scoop with fish paste. It wasn’t hard to guess that the paste was to be lumped and pushed into the broth, and with longer cooking it made for good fish balls. The rest of the plate was thin-sliced salmon (crumbly if fully cooked), shrimp, scallops, squid, and a couple of littleneck clams in the shell (which cook faster than you think).
On the whole, the spread was less lavish than at Shabu-Zen, but Toki also has à la carte options for sophisticated shabu-ites to put together a feast. You could bring four people, have two or three big spreads and some individual items, and not regret eating a bunch of sushi beforehand.
As for beverages, you can sample some interesting sakes, the usual Japanese beers, and some unusual soft drinks — as well as wine. We ordered lychee ramune ($3) thinking that it was a juice, but it was a small bottle of Japanese soda, very sweet and distinctively lychee-flavored. It had a weird plastic stopper with a glass marble in it; you could never get it past consumer-safety regulations in the United States. You push the marble into the bottle, where indentations keep it as a kind of valve that closes off the top until you pour out some (or take a slug). Don’t swallow the marble. Don’t remove the marble. Don’t reuse the bottle. But, somehow, enjoy the soda.
Desserts are limited to ice creams ($4), with one novel flavor: black sesame ($5). It’s brown and not too sweet, sort of dry tasting like green-tea ice cream, with a sesame overtone. The portion is three small scoops.
The room is inviting, with plaster worked into wave formations on the walls, red and black accents, and a soundtrack of soul and techno. Service is a little confusing because you pick at appetizers or sushi, sitting among plates of shabu-shabu makings, while waiting for the pots to boil. The weeknight crowd was, to my eye, more mixed with non-Asians than at Shabu-Zen, perhaps because of the sushi. Or perhaps it’s because a month after my review of Shabu-Zen, Phoenix readers of all backgrounds are trying more shabu-shabu palaces.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com.