314 East 70th Street, New York NY 10021 (b/n First and Second; map); 212-861-5635
Service: Polished but cheery
Setting: Avocado-green room that hasn't changed since 1979
Must-Haves: Uni tempura, fatty tuna sashimi, shabu shabu
Cost: $20/person and up
There's hardly a neighborhood in New York City without a Japanese restaurant looking something like Shabu-Shabu 70, on the Upper East Side. Little white lights on a nondescript awning. A lengthy menu of tempura and teriyaki, hand rolls and sashimi. White tablecloths, soothing music; an elderly sushi chef smiling from the back.
We've had sushi on the brain this week at Serious Eats. And while the New York of 2010 may seem to have as many Japanese restaurants as hot dog carts, not all are created equal. Sure, Manhattan has an impressive number of high-caliber sushi destinations, for those times you're willing to shell out for omakase—the Masas and Sushi Zens and Sushi Yasudas—but you'll pay dearly for the privilege. What we're always on the lookout for? What Ed Levine once called the "Sushi Holy Grail"—neighborhood restaurants that do simple sushi, well, at a reasonable price.
At a glance, it's impossible to pick these restaurants out from any others. So much of the success of a sushi joint is in the details—the angle at which the fish is cut, the preparation of the rice—skills that can't be discerned without an extensive sampling of the menu. But we're pleased to say that Shabu-Shabu 70 is the sort of neighborhood restaurant that'll do you right.
In ordering appetizers, start with the specials menu; many of Shabu-Shabu's most interesting dishes reside here. Lychee tempura ($5) was the one dish that didn't impress; it sounded like the perfect starter during lychee season, but we couldn't quite reconcile the sweet, slippery fruit with the dollop of spicy salmon hidden inside each tempura shell. (A dessert version, with red beans instead of fish: much more successful.)
Better bet? The slender crispy-skinned eggplant ($9), whose innards liquified and disappeared into the salty, sweet, sticky miso. Or the uni tempura ($9.75), fried sea urchin. It sounds like a dish that could go wrong in a thousand ways—but the tempura batter touched only the shell of nori, fusing to form a crunchy cradle for the uni, a mouthful of deeply funky urchin tasting intensely of the sea. Urchin-averse, don't think that frying the creature will help it go down easily; this is an uni bomb. But it's delicious, in the way almost reminiscent of fried oysters: crisp salty shell, jiggly innards.
Shabu-Shabu's sushi and sashimi combinations, while nothing particularly novel, evidence a skilled chef and attention to detail; fish cut perfectly across the grain; the rice barely sweet, barely hand-warmed, soft, distinct grains with a bit of a bite. Of the rolls and nigiri we tried, we were particularly fond of the firm, buttery kampachi and a tuna so fatty it all but dissolved on the tongue.
That said, it'd be a shame to visit a restaurant named Shabu-Shabu and not order the namesake dish ($24/person)—again, classic, but done right. Place an order and out comes a burner and a soon-to-be bubbling pot of water; let it heat up, drop in a few vegetables, and start swishing your beef. Sliced thinly, against the grain, the tender slips of meat cook within seconds, before you plunge them into a creamy sesame-peanut sauce or, for a simpler seasoning, a thin, tart ponzu. As you go, the cooking liquid picks up the flavor the meat leaves behind. It gets beefier as the meal goes on, finally leaving you with a broth tasty enough to pour right over rice.
Of all the recommendations I'm asked for—and there are many—mid-range Japanese food ranks among the good eats most wanted. (Second, probably, to "New York's best bagel.") Not the temples of sushi masters, not $3 California rolls, but a place that knows its fish, serves it well, and doesn't dramatically overcharge for the privilege. And that's exactly what you'll find at Shabu-Shabu 70. Its avocado-green walls and lazily spinning mobiles may date back to the Ed Koch era; its menu may not stray into unfamiliar territory. And truth be told, if you already have a neighborhood favorite, this may not be worth crossing the boroughs for. Still, a reliable, recommendable Japanese spot is a real find—and we're happy to point you to this one.
Note: We have it on good authority that Shabu-Shabu 70 is an excellent place to spend a birthday. More, we will not say.