Anybody who’s done time in the restaurant industry knows the correct knee-jerk reaction to a roomful of customers cooking their own food: “Suckers.” And a shabu-shabu restaurant–where customers get a plate of raw meat, vegetables, tofu, and noodles and a pot of boiling water to swish it all around in–sounds like a recipe for the food-as-enforced-fun experience whose appeal to the bored and tasteless has made a fortune for chains like Ed Debevic’s and Benihana.

But Shabu-ya, which opened December 27, is at least for now a pleasant and low-key place. The boiling water (I should’ve thought of this) pretty much keeps away the family crowd, and the room is small, quiet, and unobtrusively decorated except for the steam-sucking Seussian metal hoods hovering above each place at the shabu-shabu bar. Thirty-two-year-old owner B.J. Kim could double for a first-time waiter; he zips around reassuring himself that nobody’s water glass is empty, gives detailed instructions on cooking technique, and nervously asks customers if they like the flavors of the dipping sauces, which he researched at shabu-shabu restaurants in Japan. He even apologizes for the plain presentation of the food: “It’s just raw ingredients–all we can do is pile it on the plate!”

Kim–who serves as both host and head cook–wanted to open a shabu-shabu restaurant because the cuisine is popular on the coasts and he wants his city to keep up; he’s also apologetic about his background, as until now he’s made his money working in information technologies. “People will say, ‘Who is this guy? You’ve never worked in a restaurant before, what are you doing?'” But while Kim’s ease of entry might be annoying to some, his attitude is disarming. He says he shops for produce every other day, and he’s still excited about making sure the ingredients look appealing and taste right. Given the daily hassles of owning a restaurant, he might not stay chipper for long–but perhaps his head start in a fresh market will spare him some skin toughening.

Shabu-shabu is to Japanese food as pizza is to American: though now taken for granted as an island cuisine, it was swiped from China, where legend ties its origins to cooking techniques resorted to by Genghis Khan and his troops in the field. The main ingredient is velvety, sixteenth-of-an-inch-thick slices of choice rib eye that would be impossible to keep hot much longer than it takes to get them from the boiling pot to your mouth. A couple of swishes in the hot pot leaves the flesh cooked but tender. The result goes down entirely unlike meat; it’s more like a meal-long dessert.

Kim’s sweet sauces make the other ingredients sing, and you can adjust their flavor by adding grated daikon to the citrusy ponzu sauce (“Women like that sauce better,” Kim claims), fresh pureed garlic to the goma dare (sesame sauce, allegedly preferred by men), or chopped scallions to either. Kim offers a seafood plate–scallops, shrimp, calamari, and mussels–that isn’t bad and a vegetarian version that’s, well, cheap, but neither compares to the real thing. Traditional shabu-shabu restaurants offer only the beef and its accompaniments, but Kim figured Shabu-ya’s “all yuppie” neighborhood would demand lighter options (though the thinness of the slices makes the beef plate pretty ephemeral anyway).

As for “food as fun,” shabu-shabu is more meditative than entertaining. Many customers the night I was there seemed to be on laid-back dates, but if you have a lot on your mind, try it alone. I ended my meal at Shabu-ya without trying the green tea ice cream (which customers say isn’t overly rich) because after finishing my entree and looking at my watch, I panicked over the 90 minutes I’d spent staring into boiling water and ran off. But later I recollected my thoughts and realized I hadn’t wasted that time at all.

Shabu-ya is at 3475 N. Clark, 773-388-9203.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.