Last weekend for my father (fellow Aquarius)’s birthday, we went to Swish Shabu, a Japanese hot pot and sushi place that moved into my hood recently, taking the place of the late Umi, which was one of my three beloved Peterborough St. restaurants that burned down on that fateful day in 2009. The restaurants on this block meant a lot to me, because throughout my teenage years my family and I would go there to celebrate minor accomplishments and life changes. My first date happened to be in one of them. My first fond memory of good Thai food is also from there (although Rod-Dee 22 survived and reopened and they still have N.14 Star Noodle on the menu…phew…). Umi is gone now and gone along with it is the wonderful sushi/sashimi boat for two.
But in its place – Swish Shabu and it’s interactive, funky-fun dining. Basically, you select a soup base, which the waitress brings out in a iron pot and places over an electrical stove top embedded in your table, cranking up the dial on the side. You then pick some veggies, proteins, noodles and chewy, gummy balls of stuff to dunk in there, using the adorable metal ladles provided. After the stuff cooks for a few seconds in the broth, you fish it out and throw it in a porcelain bowl, add some sauce and some toppings and chow down on your custom made combination. A great idea for a fun, entertaining dinner out with friends and family, but not particularly memorable as far as culinary experiences go, since my own little bowls of randomly thrown together ingredients often turned out either under- or overcooked, soggy from the excess broth and just a bit sloppy in general. Maybe I’m just not meant to be a shabu-shabu master.
We chose two different soup bases, the Szechuan Mala (a very spicy chili-infused broth) and Tonkotsu (a Japanese broth in which pork is simmered for hours), and since each of these came with a side of the House pork broth, we actually wound up with three types. My favorite was by far the Tonkotsu, because it reminded me of the fatty, almost buttery, delicious base of my favorite ramen joint in Hong Kong. The Szechuan Mala was a tiny bit too much for me, for it had quite a few whole Bird’s eye chilis floating around in it and was more painfully hot than delightfully spicy. Though actually, I didn’t mind cooking some of the mochi rice balls in there, as these didn’t have much flavor to begin with, and became delightful little pillows of spice when they soaked up the broth. I definitely avoided the liquid when it came to the meats and the more delicate watercress though.
From the Hot Pot a la Carte menu, we started with some assorted tofu (silken, iced, fried), chewy and tender wood ear mushrooms, fresh watercress, chewy mochi rice balls (which came out frozen and thus had to be cooked until they floated over the top) and thin, slimy-smooth vermicelli noodles. My dad and I ordered some century eggs, just for old times’ sake as well as some rice just to have around. We were also provided with plenty of ginger-infused soy sauce with chopped Bird’s eye chili, scallion and minced garlic to add in. The best condiment by far, however, was the thick, slightly sweet and super nutty sesame sauce, which you have to ask for separately. It reminded me a bit of the sweet peanut sauce served with many Thai dishes and went particularly well with the meats cooked up in the hot pot.
For meats, we ordered pork and fatty beef, which came out extremely thinly sliced and curled up into little cylinders that were easy to grab with chopsticks and to dunk into the boiling hot pots of liquid. Both were rather good and cooked up within seconds, though I definitely enjoyed the fatty beef more. The latter was particularly full of flavor and the fat melted in the heat of the broth, instead of getting tough and chewy, as I was expecting it to. And, as I mentioned before, the nutty, sweet sesame sauce complemented the salty, fatty pork beautifully. So definitely ask for that!
We definitely had a good time at Swish Shabu with the back and forth, with all the “pass me this, pass me that.” And the ingredients themselves were of good quality – the veggies, noodles and tofu very fresh, the meat very flavorful and with a good marbling of fat in both. I just wish I had my own personal shabu shabu master at my table cooking the ingredients up for me and combining them in a way they made sense.