There are plenty of Japanese restaurants in New York, but not many that specialize in shabu shabu. Swish takes its name from this less familiar branch of Japanese cuisine. As the restaurant’s website puts it:
Shabu shabu is the Japanese phrase for swish swish. This form of cooking received its name from the sound of food being skimmed through boiling broth. It is an Asian tradition of food preparation that has been around for thousands of years. Typical of long-established Asian dishes, shabu shabu is simple, healthy, low in carbs, and incredibly delicious.
The process is simply to place your food into the boiling broth, allowing different foods to cook for different lengths of time. You control the amount of cooking time. If you prefer crisper spinach, a brief swish will do it. If you like your mushrooms to melt in your mouth, allow them to swim in the broth for a few minutes.
Once you remove your food from the broth, it has a delicate flavor from the absorbed broth, and can be eaten as such to enjoy the food’s full flavors. It is also traditional to use special dipping sauces. Swish offers a variety of sauces to excite your taste buds.
Swish is in the middle of NYU territory, and its menu is priced attractively for students. You can order a personal size shabu shabu priced from $12.95-$16.95. If you’re more adventurous, you can choose your own broth (five offered, $3) and select the ingredients à la carte — anything from vegetables ($2 apiece) to Prime Rib eye ($8). There are seven available dipping sauces ($0.50 each). It’s like Craft on a budget.
There are also composed shabu shabu platters for two, and last night my friend and I ordered from the top of the menu: the Swish Special Combo (beef, seafood and vegetables) for $38, which came with the house broth and all seven sauces. Shabu shabu is a do-it-yourself eating experience, a Japanese fondue. The restaurant kindly provides a laminated card instructing you how long each item should be cooked. It can be anywhere from 10 minutes (potatoes) to 30 seconds (beef, which comes sliced paper-thin).
The broth comes in a crock pot and is placed on a burner with a blue flame. It soon comes to a near-boil. As it evaporates, your server will come around and add more. Some items just go into the pot, and you retrieve them later. Others you hold in place with a fish-net ladle. For the items that cook quickly, especially the beef, you can just swish them around while holding them with your chopsticks. Over time, the broth takes on the flavors of everything you’ve cooked. You spoon it into the bowls provided, and it becomes the soup course that ends your meal. The restaurant touts its cuisine as low-carb, but offsetting that is a high salt content. Drink plenty of liquids.
I’ve been to some shabu shabu places where the broth bowl is suspended below the table surface. Swish is able to do that for the personal-size servings, but when the order is for two, they serve it on a burner that sits on the table itself. This is a bit less convenient, as you have to reach up to cook the food.
Eating Swish’s special combo is like a decathalon of chopstick skills. Some items are easy, such as the beef, shrimp, mushrooms and scallops. But others are cumbersome for the chopstick-challenged, either because they’re unwieldy (cabbage, noodles), or because they tend to fall apart after cooking (crabmeat, whitefish, tofu). However, it all tastes delicious, and besides that it’s just plain fun.
Shabu shabu strikes me as a perfect adventure for groups — Swish’s tables seat up to four. With all of that self-help cooking going on, there’s plenty to talk and laugh about. The boiling broth creates plenty of steam, which will be especially welcome on cold winter nights. The restaurant’s literature also touts it as a good first-date place, but I would not recommend that. There’s too much opportunity for accidental slapstick humor as you fumble around with your chopsticks.
I don’t know why you’d go if you’re not interested in shabu shabu, but Swish does have other things to offer. There’s a small selection of curries and rice dishes. There are lunch specials as low as $6.95. We began our meal with an order of vegetable dumplings. These were wonderful, and I had to pinch myself to believe that we paid just $3.95 for six of them. The drinks menu offers a variety of teas and smoothies ($2.50 or $3.00 each). For sake, the only options were “hot” or “cold,” but $4.50 for a small bottle was a very fair price.
Swish gave me my first chance to try table1.com, the newest of the online reservation services. Every table1 reservation comes with a discount, but you pay $1.50 per person. For a smaller restaurant, table1 is clearly a good deal, because they don’t have to install proprietary software or hardware, as opentable requires. Anyhow, I paid $3 to reserve on table1, and got a $10.42 discount off of our $52.10 bill.
Swish’s spare décor of blond wood and bamboo mats is just about perfect, creating a sense of escape and discovery. We wished the background music were more suited to this serene environment. It was not at all loud, but it was a generic jazz/new age soundtrack that one could have heard anywhere. Our server was friendly, helpful, and extremely attentive, but dressed as if she were on her way to the gym.
Swish is owned by a couple of young NYU grads. It has been open just three months. With just nine tables, I suspect it will get busy once the students return to town and discover this little gem.
Swish (88 W. 3rd St, between Thompson & Sullivan Streets, Greenwich Village)