Editor's note: Yesterday, Grub Street posted about Emperor Japanese Tapas Shabu Restaurant in Chinatown, remarking that it had "somehow completely eluded reviewers and bloggers." Well it just so happens that our man Joe DiStefano ate there last week and filed this report. —Zach

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It's easy to sell me on foods with exotic packaging and strange names. Over the years, I’ve bought all manner of items, like Big Squid, a 2-foot long sheet of dehydrated cuttlefish seasoned with Thai spices that’s been hanging on my wall uneaten for months. I’m slightly more discriminating when it comes to restaurants; usually I won't select a place to eat based solely upon its name. Unless it happens to have a moniker as outlandish as Emperor Japanese Tapas Shabu Restaurant. When I first saw this new place on Bowery several weeks ago I was fascinated. After all, I love Japanese food, and I love tapas. Not that I necessarily expected to find either at this strange hybrid restaurant, especially with a menu that offers a lunch special of Spaghetti Bolognaise (sic).

Upon entering I immediately realized that EJTSR isn’t a typical Japanese shabu shabu place, where the broth tends to be more neutral. Its menu features a list of more intensly flavored broths, keeping in line with what you would get in a Chinese hot pot. Regardless, the tables were packed with folks happily dropping items into pots of bubbling broth, and even though I’ve eaten everything from roast guinea pig to fermented squid guts, I must say I find hotpot a little intimidating. It probably has to do with the fact that I can’t blame the kitchen for overcooking my shrimp.

Perusing the list of soup bases, we immediately vetoed Spicy Sichuan, Tom Yum and miso (all $3), and the two luxury soup bases, lobster and Chinese cilantro with preserved egg ($5 each). All of them sounded good, but the obvious choice to make at a place named Emperor Japanese Tapas Shabu Restaurant is the tonkatsu broth, a long-simmered pork bone soup that’s the Holy Grail for many a ramen lover.

We also decided against springing for the $45 set meal, that includes 6 ounces of “Wagyu beef from Japan,” plus veggies and noodles, and instead went with the surf and turf, at a much more economical $25. To make things interesting, we also had them toss in some shrimp balls ($4), beef tendon balls ($3) and special fish dumplings ($5).

Now it was time to turn our attention to the small plates. Unless you count pan-fried goose liver French style ($15.95) or wagyu beef tartare with quail egg ($18), there’s nothing on the EJTSR menu that falls into the tapas category. (Then again maybe that’s an emperor’s idea of tapas.) Instead we ordered the shredded beef with spaghetti with black pepper, but only because I couldn’t bring myself to get the Bolognaise.

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Along with our pot of steaming broth, the waiter brought two platters. One was heaped with vegetables, the other was our surf and turf, which consisted of prime rib eye, shrimp, scallops, flounder, squid, cockles and fish cake. Pretty soon the broth was bubbling away and we began dropping goodies into the pot. The broth was nowhere near as complex as the tonkatsu at Ippudo, but we dropped in some of the udon noodles anyway since hotpot broth always develops more flavor as you cook various items in it.

Whether you call it shabu shabu or hotpot, one thing is for sure, all it takes to cook the thin slices of beef is a quick dip. The beef tendon balls (above), on the other hand, benefit from a longer soak, that is unless you like them especially chewy. As I mentioned before, you might want to take care with the shrimp, since they are pretty easy to overcook. Soon enough you’ll get the hang of it and be fishing items out of the pot with the wire strainer. Thankfully the controls on the in-table induction plate have only three settings: “Power, high and low.”

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Just as we were getting into the hotpot groove, our waiter brought the shredded beef with spaghetti with black pepper, which my eating companion Ernesto, who is half-Cuban, half-Cantonese, remarked was like a shredded beef lo mein, but with different noodles. Indeed, the tender bits of beef and spaghetti were quite tasty, but I only wish the kitchen used more black pepper. More interesting by far were the "famous" homemade fish noodles that we noticed being eaten at a nearby table, and which the manager was proud to point out on the menu. At first we didn’t know what was going on, and then all of a sudden the gent started to squeeze a white ribbon of goop out of a pastry bag into the soup.

I still don’t know why they put tapas in the English name, but I did get a friend to decipher the Chinese characters on the menu. Apparently it translates to Emperor’s Palace Japanese Style Hotpot and Small Dishes. Somehow it strikes me that Calvin Trillin, who described mediocre Continental fare using the phrase “maison de la casa house,” might like this place.

Emperor Japanese Tapas Shabu Restaurant

96 Bowery, Manhattan 10013 (map)
212-219-1993

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