Hyoto Kyoto: Shabu-shabu with dashi to die for

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Shabu-shabu is one of those words that I could happily go about saying all day long. Granted, I might end up in a company of one, but hey, shabu-shabu. At Hyoto Kyoto I was alone, and I was there for the shabu-shabu.

Before you set foot in Hyoto you can divine that they want to elevate shabu-shabu from a “great party dish,” as Japanese culinary maestro Shizuo Tsuji called it, to a fine dining experience. From outside it’s difficult to tell if you’re entering an upscale boutique or perhaps an understated wedding venue.

Inside the restaurant, which is essentially one long room flooded with light, tables are sequestered behind floor-to-ceiling screens composed of chain mail so that the light and the aroma from the pots bubbling over filters around the restaurant. The waiting staff, all female and all dressed in kimonos, glide past in and out of sight. It’s all very theatrical, but understated.

When it boils down to it, shabu-shabu is a simple affair: you, a pot of steaming broth, raw vegetables and slices of beef or pork cut as thin as pages of a newspaper. And as with yakiniku (barbecuing meat), it’s you and your party who do the work. And for the first half of lunch at Hyoto, this was the script.

Lunch and dinner sets start from around ¥2,000 rising to ¥15,000 per person. Most options include Omi beef — wagyu from Shiga Prefecture. The dishes arrive quickly after ordering, and your server will get you started by helping you boil some of the enoki, leeks and spinach. But after she departs, you’re more or less on your own.

Accompanying the meal are two dipping sauces: a citron-based ponzu sauce that has an ever-so-slight acidic undertone, as well as a creamy sauce made from toasted sesame seeds. The wagyu is cut so thin and is so heavily marbled that it needs to be boiled for about as long as it takes you to say “shabu shabu.”

Part of the fun is deciding where to dip your just-boiled morsels. The ponzu sauce — the lighter option — might be a better accompaniment as it melds with the lard of the beef for a brief blissful moment. To finish out the first round, place the kuzu-kiri (kudzu starch noodles) in the pot and watch as the color transforms. Up to this point, Hyoto was nice, if formulaic.

It is part two that’s the showstopper. You get a small bowl of dashi that is overflowing in umami — it’s this dashi that sets Hyoto apart. The dashi hardly needs it, but you’ll also get yuzu koshō (Japanese citrus pepper) with shichimi (seven spices) mixed through. Add a little of the yuzu koshō to the dashi and proceed to boil the noodles, either soba or udon (thick wheat noodles), in the pot before transferring them to your bowl of dashi.

It was without doubt one of the best bowls of udon I’ve had this year, and also one of the least expected — on the back of a shabu-shabu meal for one.

Set meals from ¥2,000; English menu; some English spoken