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Hot Pot, Cool Jazz

January 13, 2002

Hard-core sushi fanatics would be loath to admit it, but there is more to Japanese cuisine than chilly raw fish, however fresh and pristine. Come cold weather, that steaming bowl of ropy udon noodles looks awfully tempting. This is the time of year, too, when it's fun to go out with friends for shabu shabu. My favorite address for that right now is Kagaya, in a 2nd Street strip mall just west of Alameda in Little Tokyo.

It's a small place, with just five or so tables and a handful of seats at the bar. It has an appealing aesthetic, though. Tables are separated by traditional openwork bamboo screens. Pots of snowy orchids grace the bar, and on the sound system, Miles Davis gives life to the birth of the cool.

The beauty is that all you have to decide on is the main course--one of three kinds of beef, mixed beef and seafood shabu shabu, or mixed seafood. The meal includes two appetizers, a bowl of soup, house-made pickled vegetables and dessert for one inclusive price.

As soon as you sit down, the server turns on the electric coil beneath a cast aluminum pot in the middle of the table. She fills it with a light broth, in this case, chicken instead of dashi, the traditional Japanese broth made from kombu (kelp) and shaved, dried bonita flakes. With all the pots of boiling broth, the room becomes a sauna. Those unpractical enough to wear sweaters push up sleeves and wish they'd brought a fan. Even on this chilly evening, we're sweltering, which leads me to wonder what it would be like in summer.

When we ask our waitress whether we can open the door, she offers to turn on the air-conditioning--and reaches overhead to fiddle the controls with a broomstick. As we give our orders, she answers "hai!" and bows her head. She then heads back toward the kitchen, shouting out the order as she goes.

Before we get to the main course, we have been brought a couple of appetizers that are remarkably good. The meal may begin with a small portion of absolutely fresh hamachi sashimi, followed by a light soup garnished with shredded crab. One night we started with two thin slices of duck breast ribboned with fat and anchored with a dab of rip-snorting yellow mustard. Then came a lyrical dashi broth with chives and dominoes of fresh mackerel in a lidded lacquer bowl. That was followed by a sliver of Norwegian salmon crowned with a thatch of micro-greens. Once those are cleared away, two bowls of dipping sauces arrive for each diner: a light soy-based ponzu, and goma-dare, a creamy sesame sauce with a backbeat of hot red pepper.

They're followed by a platter piled extravagantly high with nappa cabbage, chrysanthemum leaves, whole scallions, meaty shiitake mushrooms and shimmering cubes of tofu. Underneath somewhere are skeins of opaque glass noodles. The idea is to cook the vegetables in the broth, along with the beef or seafood. As the meal progresses, the broth takes on complexity.

It's best to cook any seafood first--before the broth begins to taste of the beef. I once ordered the mixed seafood, and that included clams in the shell, oysters on the half shell and giant Alaskan king crab legs. I picked up a clam with my chopsticks and promptly lost it at the bottom of the pot, not to be recovered until halfway through the meal. I'm not a fan of king crab, but here it's impressive for its freshness and delicate flavor.

Shabu shabu means "swish swish." The idea is to take a piece of the paper-thin beef and swirl it with chopsticks through the hot broth just long enough to say the words "shabu shabu." Any longer and it will be overcooked. I like to remove mine while parts of it are still pink. Leave the heavily marbled beef in too long and the fat will melt away, nicely flavoring the broth but giving you meat that looks like rags.

For beef, the choice is USDA prime rib, Wagyu beef from Australia or Kobe beef from Washington state. It is cut to order into almost transparent slices and fanned out on a platter. It's not frozen but is very, very cold, the waitress tells us. "That's $90?" croaked one of my companions, referring to the platter of Kobe beef. Kobe is the famously marbled meat, with so much fat it's more white than red, and deliciously tender. Technically, Kobe is Wagyu breed beef from the area of Kobe, Japan. Here the restaurant offers the Wagyu breed in those options from Australia and Washington--but none from Japan.

The Kobe's fat melts across your tongue, flooding your palate. It's the foie gras of the beef world. In Japan it can cost $300 or more a pound. But, in fact, we all prefer the more robust, beefy flavor of the less expensive Australian Wagyu ($65). The prime beef ($35) will give you the experience of the whole meal, but the beef is less tender and definitely less flavorful, because it's not as marbled. Incidentally, the Wagyu breed is notable for its low cholesterol and unsaturated fat, which is not to say it isn't high in calories.

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