When KSL radio’s Grant Nielsen heard about Park City’s Shabu restaurant, the shameless punster replied, “Hey, that’s not too shabu!” Since I’m a lover of puns—the worse the better—Grant’s line cracked me up; I can’t get that one out of my head. Whenever anyone asks me now about Shabu restaurant, I can’t help but answer: “Well, it’s not too shabu!” The truth though is that “not to shabu/shabby” doesn’t begin to do justice to Shabu restaurant. Because it’s not only “not too shabby,” it’s a great restaurant—one of my current favorites.
Shabu, located on the upper floor of Park City’s Main Street Mall in Old Town, is the creation of brothers Kevin and Robert Valaika, who have enviable culinary pedigrees. For years, Kevin managed Park City’s prestigious Grappa restaurant and Robert trained with renowned chef Nobu Matsuhisa at Nobu. “I was the first white guy to apprentice with Nobu,” says chef Valaika.
The Valaika brothers call what they’re doing at Shabu “freestyle Asian cuisine,” and that’s a fair description. The cuisine at Shabu ranges from sushi and sashimi to stir-fries, Thai-style soups and noodle dishes and upscale Nobu-style Asian creations. It’s a pan-Asian menu loaded with fresh flavors and gorgeous presentations.
The name Shabu comes from shabu-shabu, a style of cooking dating back to the days of Genghis Khan in which meats, poultry, seafood and veggies are cooked in a hot pot filled with broth or hot water. The term shabu-shabu refers to the “swish-swish” sound of cooking a thin slice of beef or chicken in boiling water. Today, shabu-shabu cooking is quite popular in Japan; up in Park City, it’s becoming more popular by the day thanks to Shabu restaurant.
Shabu is a stunning-looking eatery. Gone is any visual remnant of previous tenants. The brothers Valaika completely gutted the space and have created a restaurant that’s nothing but sweet eye candy. Gorgeous woods, vibrant colors, smartly dressed servers and a huge metal fish sculpture near the back bar make Shabu a truly unique restaurant, one that vibrates with energy. From the week the place opened, Shabu has been busy almost every night just based on word-of-mouth buzz from the denizens of Park City. A new sushi and “saketini” bar out on the balcony overlooking Main Street just adds to this restaurant’s appeal.
Whether you choose to indulge in shabu-shabu or not, it’s a good idea to order a Shabu appetizer, since they’re almost all superb. The “firecracker” rock shrimp ($9) are very popular, as is the Thai chicken satay with peanut sauce ($7). But I recommend being a bit more adventurous and trying the fresh oysters wrapped in kataifi (phyllo) dough, then flash fried and served on crispy fresh lettuce cups with tonkatsu sauce. The “Tsunami” crab cakes ($10) at Shabu are another excellent starter: a generous amount of crab and fried wontons served on mixed greens with pickled ginger and a citrusy ponzu aioli.
Once you’ve enjoyed your appetizers, you’ll need to make a difficult decision. And that’s whether to experience the signature shabu-shabu, or to go with a more traditional entrÃ©e, such as sake-steamed sea bass ($25) with ginger-chive infusion and garlic-black bean paste. Then again, you can simply remedy the problem of having to decide by visiting the restaurant more than once—a choice I strongly recommend.
Eating shabu-shabu at Shabu is both fun and delicious. Here’s how it works: A gas-powered cooker is brought to the table. Before you know it, voilÃ¡! you’re the chef. When you order shabu-shabu you’ll be asked to select a type of broth—vegetarian or a luscious Thai coconut broth, both of which are wonderful—and a bento box. When you select a bento box, you’ll choose between beef, chicken, seafood or tofu (each box includes veggies). The cost is $20 for one person and $17 for each additional bento box.
You don’t actually cook the broth from scratch (thank goodness) at your table; the broth is already hot and steaming when it’s brought out. All you have to do is keep it heated using the portable gas cooker. This is something I found difficult to master, by the way—I kept extinguishing my gas flame. But with patient help from one of Shabu’s shabu-shabu experts, I eventually got the hang of it.
All of the bento box choices at Shabu are good, but I especially like the thin, tender slices of beef, cooked in Thai coconut broth. It’s a fun operation cooking food right at the table— sort of an Asian-style of fondue. By the way, kids love shabu-shabu cooking, too, so it’s a good way to introduce them to unusual Asian flavors.
And shabu-shabu is a very filling and complete meal. Because along with your bento box of protein and veggies, at the end of the meal you’re also served a big bowl of cooked noodles to eat with the remaining shabu-shabu broth. It’s simply a delightful way to enjoy dinner and, at $20, a steal I think.
The verdict: I say yahoo! to Shabu.
SHABU, 333 Main Park City 435-645-SAKE Open nightly for dinner