To Everything There Is a Season
We're not supposed to eat cherries in the snow or savor plum pudding in July. Each culture seems to have its own idea of what goes best on the plate each season. So even in a time when greenhouses and air transport make almost anything available at a price, we still savor fresh asparagus and fiddlehead ferns in spring, parsnips and turnips with Thanksgiving turkey, and strawberry shortcake and wedges of cool watermelon on summer picnics. In Japanese culture, the nabemono dishes of table-cooked foods prepared over the brazier that is also warming the house are emblematic of the colder winter months and usually come off summer menus at Japanese restaurants. Some dishes, however, are too good to be constricted by this culinary straitjacket. I've spent years looking for places that serve my favorite, shabu shabu, no matter what the month.
Recently, after a presentation at the Mercantile Library on East 47th Street, my fellow panelists and I stopped a few doors down at Yodo of Japan, lured as much by the advertised $20 dinner specials as anything else, and I was delighted to discover that my favorite was available after cherry blossom time. I suspected we'd hit on a winner when upon entering I took in all the Japanese businessmen in the crowd and noticed that seating areas had been cordoned off so that each set of diners had relative privacy.
Once I found shabu shabu on the menu, my order was foreordained. But I waited and popped a few of the table's order of edamame ($3.75) as others decided on noodles or orchestrated a special. Kitsune udon ($7.50), fried tofu atop a bowl of noodles, was preceded by tender fried bamboo shoots ($7.50, in season) from the Koh-Sei prefecture in China that lived up to their billing; their bland sweetness and firm crunch were light-years away from the insipid and often stringy canned variety.
The dinner special boasted five courses with large enough portions to guarantee satiety. The seasonal greens were punctuated with bits of verdant seaweed and topped with sesame seeds for texture, and the shrimp and vegetable tempura delighted with a piece of fried okra promptly snagged by yours truly. The dobinmushi proved a mushroom and seafood broth served from a small teapot with a tiny cup of lemon juice to spark the flavor. The spicy inside-out tuna roll proved too piquant for my friend, so I graciously scarfed down a yummy piece or two. Her main of chicken teriyaki on a bed of sautéed vegetables drew raves for its succulence. We decided that the food-for-cost value of the meal was super.
My shabu shabu ($27.50) was perfecttender thin slices of beef cooked at the table in a broth with greens and vegetables. There was enough for two, so I soldiered through most of the meat and limited my veg intake to nibbles of tofu, carrots, scallions, spinach, and bok choy and left fat and happy. On my second visit, my companion confirmed the quality of the bamboo shoots and checked out a salmon teriyaki ($10.50) lightly covered with a non-cloying glaze. I started with my tatsuta age ($5), chicken fried just like Grandma would have had she been Japanese. But my main decision was made before I crossed the threshold, and once again my shabu shabu proved that true bliss knows no season.
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