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O. C. LIVE

Boil-It-Yourself Beef: Fun and Affordable Fast Food

July 04, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

CYPRESS — At Gyushintei, a cozy Japanese restaurant in a mini-mall, the menu is almost entirely devoted to shabu-shabu, thinly sliced ingredients poached at your table. In Japan, where the dish is eaten primarily during the cold months, shabu-shabu is as much a way of life as it is a way of eating.

This is a practical matter. Traditional Japanese houses, especially outside the big cities, are lightly constructed and hard to heat. In many of them, space is at a premium. It all makes Martha Stewart-type entertaining next to impossible.

Hence the comfortable custom of serving shabu-shabu. The sliced meats and vegetables are piled on platters, and everyone gathers around a communal kettle to dip them in the broth. When friends and family perform the ritual on chilly winter evenings, the effect is more than nutritional, more than good fellowship--it's a good way to keep warm.

Of course, no such problems arise in Cypress, particularly in July. It often gets pretty hot in this part of the county, but that actually provides a different rationale for shabu-shabu. One reason I like this do-it-yourself supper in hot weather is that it's a very light meal. Another is that it is plain, affordable fun.

It's also healthful. Beef, the prime ingredient in a shabu-shabu kettle, absorbs fat when fried. If you cook it over an open flame, of course, you lose around 30% of the fat, but boil it and you've washed away nearly 50%. (Unlike the cooking broth in the otherwise similar Mongolian hot pot featured at some Chinese restaurants, shabu-shabu broth is not consumed as soup at the end of the meal.)

Furthermore, shabu-shabu is practically fast food. The thin slices of meat literally cook in seconds.

This is the way a meal is handled at Gyushintei. You're seated at a table fitted with individual cast-iron kettles, one per person. Each kettle is set into a hole in the table, so that the water's surface is just below the table surface.

A waiter comes out, removes the kettle's otoshi-buta, or wooden-handled drop lid, fills the kettle with plain water and turns on the flame. Powerful gas burners under the table heat the kettles in no time.

Now you are asked to choose a meat--beef, pork or chicken--and a variety of other ingredients to add to the kettle during the cooking process. The table is already stocked with the essential Japanese condiments for livening up these plain boiled foods, such things as chopped green onion and dark soy sauce. In a tiny red shaker is shichimi (literally, "seven spices"), a lively mixture that includes crushed red pepper, orange zest and ginger. There's also a tiny glass pot of minced garlic, making a rare guest shot on the Japanese table.

Two ready-made sauces are brought out with the meats. One is ponzu, a dark, soy-based citrus juice sauce, ideal for dipping vegetables. The other is a light brown sesame sauce, intended for the meats. I like it best with a bit of the minced garlic mixed in.

Soon afterward, they bring a huge platter of vegetables: Chinese cabbage (hakusai), onions, broccoli, tofu, sliced carrot, sugar snap peas and a few others. Then comes your platter of meat, plus side dishes either of thick udon or skinny ramen noodles, a bowl of steamed rice and small serving of Japanese tsukemono pickles. To finish, you get a choice of vanilla ice cream or sweetened iced coffee. For Japanese purists, pots of green tea are also available at no extra charge.

*

The technique is to cook the vegetables first, so they flavor the broth in which you'll cook the meats. You just put them in the boiling water, remove them with a serving spoon when they're done to your taste, and dip them into the sauce of your choice. You cook the meats the same way. They take about 30 to 60 seconds.

The pork and chicken are reasonably tender and easy to cook, but if you're like most people here, you'll have ordered beef. What you get is eight to 10 carpaccio-thin slices of raw meat folded like linen napkins. Unfold the cuts and plunge them in the kettle. Selected beef shabu-shabu is under $10; the attractively marbled prime beef nearly $7 more. (If you ask me, the latter choice is bad money management. You're going to boil out most of this fat anyway, so why pay the extra money?)

As for the non-vegetable adjuncts, bean thread noodles are wispy translucent threads that I find particularly refreshing. For a lighter meal, choose ramen over the starchier udon noodles, and let the tofu stay in the kettle until it fluffs.

Gyushintei has a few appetizers. Edamame are crunchy boiled and salted green soy beans served cold in their pods, a great bar snack. Tsukune are skewered, soy-glazed balls of minced broiled chicken, and there is ordinary yakitori as well, where the chicken comes in chunks on the skewer.

This bright, shiny restaurant is equipped with a dozen-odd tables, one six-seat counter and a few simple Japanese decorations--a sake barrel here, a kimono sash there. Its style is the antithesis of the dark, crowded Japanese pub atmosphere, but that doesn't mean you can't do some light tippling with a meal here. Posted on the front wall is a handwritten menu of hot sakes, which are the ideal drinks for those frosty Japanese winters.

As this is deepest summer, though, I wash my shabu-shabu down with an ice-cold Japanese beer. In the California summer, cold beer is a way of life, too.

Gyushintei is moderately priced. Shabu-shabu is $5.54 to $13.86 during lunch, $7.98 to $16.63 at dinner. Sharing a meal is not permitted.

* GYUSHINTEI

* 10953 Meridian Drive, Cypress.

* (714) 995-0691.

* Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday, noon-2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; dinner 5:30-9:30 p.m. daily.

* MasterCard and Visa.

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