By Raymond Bill
When people ask me what my favorite restaurants are in the valley, I have a few staple responses that I am confident will suffice their inquiry. That is until now. I have discovered the best kept secret of the Coachella Valley in Rancho Mirage. Shabu Shabu Zen is literally one of a kind, as it is the only Japanese restaurant in our county offering the delicious Shabu Shabu cuisine! My girlfriend and I shared an unforgettable experience with our best friends here and the four of us have not stopped talking about Shabu Shabu Zen and Sake Bar.
For those that are not familiar with this cuisine, I’ll explain as it was humbly explained to me by their extremely knowledgeable owner. The idea is that you are able to cook your food at the very table at which you are seated. Presented before us were two pots of water, seasoned with two separate broths, placed on a special heating surface and brought to a boil. We controlled the heat, there are no flames and it is completely safe and fun. We then received an assortment of Kobe beef and Angus Prime Rib-Eye Beef as well as vegetables like bok choy and cabbage with tofu. We are then instructed how to enjoy our meal. Shabu Shabu translates to, “Swish Swish.” We are encouraged to “swish” our savory meats and vegetables around in the lighter colored broth and then enjoy with housemade dipping sauces like Ponzu and sesame (which we helped prepare by grinding sesame seeds with a mortar and pestle). In the other pot is a darker, richer broth in which we are encouraged to add ingredients to as we would a soup or stew. The ingredients absorb the flavor of the broth and we all enjoyed the interaction as much as we did the quality of ingredients. Shabu Shabu is accompanied by steamed rice.
But this is just one element to this restaurant. There is so much more to share! Sukiyaki is also available, where these same meats are simmered in soy sauce with a Mirin based broth. There are also many small plates or tapas to enjoy. We shared many. I honestly cannot tell you my favorite as they were all just incredible. Okonomiyaki, known as a, “savory pancake,” was not like a pancake at all; rather, it was prepared with tender pork belly and topped with quail eggs. Another popular dish was actually an entrée special that we shared between us. Fresh seared Ahi tuna over risotto. I could taste the subtle saltiness of the sea in each bite; it doesn’t get fresher than that! Kakinotane Cracker Shrimp and Octopus 3 ways were also delicious and masterfully plated. The plating and ambiance were authentic without being pretentious or overstated. The prices are quite fair, with tapas between $4 and $9.
One of the biggest surprises of our evening was the impressive selection of sake. If you love sake and want to enjoy a rare selection, or if you know little of sake and want to learn, you must come here as the staff is trained and eager to walk you through the list with detailed descriptions. We shared a couple Sake Flights, each containing 3 tastings. After we compared tasting notes and learned about each selection, we were able to decide on a bottle to share. There are many beer and wine selections available, both import and domestic.
Shabu Shabu Zen and Sake Bar is a small restaurant but the intimacy of the design allows for a very personable experience. The owner, server and chef (all of whom made an appearance at our table and others) were genuinely pleased to be serving their guests. It is a very positive and inviting atmosphere that I hope to visit many times this season. It is a one of a kind restaurant and it is most certainly my favorite restaurant in the entire valley, hands down! Please visit them in Rancho Mirage at 71680 Hwy 111 and visit them at www.shabu-shabu-zen.com for more information.