Nabe: Inner Sunset's New Hot (S)pot

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Since Nabe opened in January, I’ve walked up and down Ninth Avenue scoping out this new nabemono hot-pot restaurant. It’s easy to miss, because steam from the cooking pots clouds the glass windows, while shielding its patrons from the cold night.

We went on a chilly Sunday evening, bleak enough to make the Muni look tempting to the most avid of walkers, and stepped into Nabe’s warm interior thinking only of savory noodles and vegetables.

Inside, the décor is simple smart, and cool. It seats 32 people, with one long communal table and separate tables on the sides. Along the slate-colored walls are display cases full of empty bottles of high-end sake.

Although Nabe opted for a modern design, its small size, focus on DIY hot pots and steamy interior make it an intimate spot for a casual catch-up session with a friend, or a fun date night. On the night we stopped by, couples and small groups of friends occupied the separate tables, while a large family birthday party had reserved the extended center table.

The juxtaposition of comfort food and sleek design make Nabe a unique destination. Our party of four all ordered different nabemono sets, but because I follow a vegan diet, I chose the Kinoko Nabe entrée.

Each set comes with a choice of meat, seafood or tofu, plus broth, noodles, vegetables, dipping sauce and rice soup (the regular size is $19, the large $24). In the Kinoko Nabe, the broth is brimming with several varieties of mushrooms, bok choy, spinach, tofu, carrots and to my great joy, kabocha squash.

One type of mushroom maintained its tough, chewy texture, no matter how long I cooked it. The miso broth is not overly salty, but added flavor to the fresh produce.  Our table also ordered the Kimchi + Kurobuta Pork Belly, Shabu Shabu (Washugyu beef/Kurobuta pork) and the seasonal Kamonanban (duck breast).

For omnivores, I would recommend the Shabu Shabu because of its variety: two dipping sauces, as well as the most impressive plate of vegetables and tofu. As if ramen, udon and soba noodles weren’t enough, our waitress came to prepare our Zosui rice soup using Japanese-style rice and our remaining broth.

After simmering the rice, she added green onions, egg (optional) and nori seaweed toppings to the soup and served each of us a hearty bowl. At first I was discouraged from trying my rice soup, but my fellow diner, Carly Govind, gave me the courage by saying, “There’s always room for rice!” It was worth the extra cardio-workout during the preceding week.

Although Nabe is new, it’s already gaining in popularity. Here are some of my tips to ensure you have a good time: 

  • Go early. Nabe only takes reservations for six or more diners. We waited 40 minutes starting at 7:30 p.m. on a Sunday. Probably not the best place for Valentine’s Day.
  • Have to wait? Grab a drink at Social, across the street.
  • Regular sized hot-pot sets are $19; large sets are $24.
  • Excuse some minor service flops because of the newly trained staff. (For example, I never got my share of noodles and also had to remind our waitress about the tea I ordered.)
  • Don’t cook the squash too long.
  • Bring friends to try different broths!