3400 Osage Street
Somewhere along the line, cooking became a chore. For reasons best left to food historians and sociologists, the art of feeding ourselves has tumbled in popularity and now hovers just above taking out the trash on the list of most despised household tasks. But if the activity at Kobe An Shabu Shabu, a niche Japanese restaurant that opened in Highland this summer, is any indication, people will not only cook, but they'll pay good money to do so -- provided they're in a swanky space drinking plum wine with friends.
Owners Marco and Michelle Trujillo, who took over Kobe An in Lakewood from Michelle's mother a decade ago (that restaurant just closed in anticipation of a move to Cherry Creek), have been dreaming of opening a shabu shabu restaurant ever since. Since sushi and ramen have caught on in this town, they reasoned, why wouldn't shabu shabu work, too?
See also: Behind the Scenes at Kobe An Shabu Shabu
After all, the unpleasant part of cooking is the prep, as anyone who's stood crying over onions can attest. But at Kobe An Shabu Shabu, the washing, chopping and slicing are already done, leaving you with just the fun stuff. And a meal here should be fun, in the manner of such do-it-yourself dinners as Chinese hot pots, raclette and fondue.
Recent visits to the restaurant were more funny than fun, though, revealing a place with considerable kinks to work out. As a result, the experience doesn't deliver the bang you'd expect for the buck.
Shabu shabu, which translates to "swish, swish," can be thought of as Japanese vegetable-beef soup cooked at the table over an induction burner -- but instead of potatoes, green beans and tomatoes, the server brings a platter of napa cabbage, shiitake, carrots, scallions, watercress and enoki mushrooms. Wriggly udon and slender glass noodles are buried under the vegetables, as are a few slices of soft tofu. A platter of meat follows, six ounces of thinly sliced ribeye (in my experience, seven or eight roll-ups) at whatever price point you've selected: wet-aged choice for $23, natural Aspen Ridge for $31 or Snake River Farms American wagyu for $59, an unnecessary indulgence given that you're about to boil it.
The plate parade -- which started with bowls of miso delivered as an appetizer -- doesn't end there. The server also brings out a host of smaller dishes -- individual bowls of ponzu and goma dare, a sesame-seed sauce with a deceptively peanutty taste; grated daikon and chopped scallions to spoon into the ponzu; portions of white or brown rice -- as well as a ladle, tongs and a strainer. If you've ordered shabu shabu, you'll also get a large bowl filled with kombu-studded water. Sukiyaki, another one-pot entree, comes with a sweet soy broth instead. If this sounds like a tableful, it is. Indeed, if you're dining with more than one friend, every inch of your table will be taken up by dishes: Be careful or you'll knock something off, domino-effect style, as we did once. (The server was gracious about it; we left a good tip.)
Raw ingredients in place, you're ready for the fun stuff. First you add thicker-cut vegetables to the pot, then the thinner ones, then finally the slices of meat, which change from bright red to brown as you swish them in the broth. Take things out as they cook, dip them in the sauces, then eat them over rice. And be sure to save some rice; when the liquid has reduced down, everything that's been cooked in it combines in a flavor-packed broth to pour over the grains and eat like porridge. It's a messy business: The vegetables are scalding; meat drapes over chopsticks in large, floppy pieces; and despite your best efforts, you'll end up slurping and leaving drops of broth and sauce all over the table in a glorious meal that's guaranteed to bring out your inner kid.
Keep reading for more on Kobe An Shabu Shabu.
At least that's how shabu shabu is supposed to go. But at Kobe An Shabu Shabu, it tends to go awry. Burners were left on high and forgotten, so that pots bubbled like geysers before an eruption. At one meal, sake that was supposed to be poured tableside into a pot of miso (a specialty broth for shabu shabu) never materialized. Even without it, though, we preferred the miso to the water, which always seemed in need of more kombu and bigger platters of meat and vegetables to thoroughly flavor it. One night the water level was too high and the kombu pieces too tiny, so the broth never reduced down to anything other than water, anyway, and we were instructed to add the condiments to the pot rather than to the ponzu, where they belong. But at least that night's server told us to cook the vegetables for thirty seconds; another time, a different server dumped all our vegetables into the bowl without asking us first, then walked away, telling us she'd come back in eight to ten minutes when they were done. They were done, all right -- liquefied into something no chopsticks could pinch. In fact, servers often rushed through cooking instructions, never once sharing the tip about mixing the broth with the rice, and they routinely forgot to tell us about specials.
At any sit-down restaurant, servers are expected to perform the role of trusty guides. That's especially important at Kobe An Shabu Shabu, where most guests need both an introduction to the food and instructions on how to cook it. "They're still going through training," acknowledges Marco. "It's really new to them, as well. Not many of them that we've hired have had shabu shabu."
In addition to the DIY side, Kobe An Shabu Shabu offers a separate menu of small plates, the majority of which came from Kobe An -- but there are no rolls. Some of these dishes have problems, too. Hamachi poppers resemble nigiri, with the yellowtail resting on a jalapeño ring curled over a dab of cream cheese rather than a pat of rice -- but the appetizer flopped instead of popped, because the fish was cut too thick and too long for the bit of jalapeño underneath. For negimaki, the ribeye wrapped around bundles of green onions and enoki mushrooms had been cooked until it resembled brittle bacon. Tempura-battered kabocha squash tasted strongly of oil; togarashi and salt were applied too liberally to a side of edamame.
As with the shabu shabu and sukiyaki, where portions of meat seemed skimpy considering the price, the small plates were simply too small. An order of organic spinach gomae brought four rolls resembling long, skinny thimbles. Korokke turned out to be one small panko-coated potato pancake cut into quarters, with a bowl of Japanese Worcestershire-style barbecue sauce on the side. Unlike at high-end sushi restaurants, where prices are often justified by artistic plating as well as fish quality, there was little in the presentation here to warrant the tab.
What wasn't small was the kakigori, a popular Japanese dessert resembling a shaved-ice snow cone. We liked the first few bites but soon gave up on the icy mound given the daunting sweetness of the green-tea syrup, sweetened condensed milk, sweetened azuki beans and chewy mochi on top.
As a concept, shabu shabu has potential; this could be a grown-up version of Benihana, with cleaner flavors and no gaudy showmanship. But Kobe An Shabu Shabu has to refine that concept, and fast, or people just might decide that cooking at home is just as fun -- and a whole lot cheaper.
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Select items from the Kobe An menu:
Hamachi poppers $7
Spinach gomae $6
Potato korokke $6
Beef negimaki $10
Kabocha tempura $5
Shabu shabu $23-$59
Kobe An is open 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-11 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Sunday. Learn more at kobedenver.com.