This might be a better post for fall, but there’s something to be said about hanging to the last days of a summer with a steaming shabu shabu dinner. The sweet but sweaty struggle with overheating and overeating is nothing short of necessary. Spotting the pig-emblazoned lantern proud above the door, we had no trouble making our decision about which West Village place to plop.
Hakata Tonton is a small unimaginative space, with stark walls occasionally signed by familiar names. Mr. Matsuhisa has left his mark, and trying to remember the second part of that name was something of a challenge on an empty stomach. However, this small dining area teems with steam and general pork aroma. Portable gas ranges fired away, shrinking the mountains of vegetables piled onto each hot pot.
The menu is a maze of delicious. Despite the unattractive focus on pork feet, a true collagen-conossoiseur knows precisely what a name such as that entails. The gelatinous character that it lends to the shabu shabu broth is praise-worthy, and almost pardons the noticeable lack of actual piggy in the 2 servings we ordered.
Before the hot plate though, we did order a deep fried oyster. Despite the usual raw treatment, there is simply no crime is just dumping those suckers in the deep fryer. Unlike its raw serve cousin fatty fish belly, this fruit of the sea excels in batter, and retains a bit of a briny bite. Paired with spicy mentaiko, this was a promising start to any meal, and enough to stave the hunger as we insisted testing the watched-pot hypothesis.
The hot plate comes as a mountain of cabbage and chives, topped with goji berries. Deep in hiding is the pork belly, deeper still is the pork feet. As the heat slowly tempts the cabbage into submission, sparing pieces of pork belly surface with trepidation. So few are they in number that one finally resigns to the cabbage chive soup, pitiful perhaps as Charlie’s soup in the beginning chapters of …’s iconic story. However, there is no mistaking the tell-tale broth, with its slightly cloying texture, it leaves real lingering flavour. The two scant pieces that were fished out were delicate in size and opaque in color, a treat for the lucky few who chance upon it.
Having the monstrous appetite that has made this blog possible, there was simply no question in picking up the menu once more. This time, we to spared no caloric expenses and ordered the broth based bibimbap. The last round of food had gifted us with patience. Slowly the broth evaporated and absorbed, leaving us with a porridge-like substance enough to fill three bowls. It was perfectly satisfying, with chunks of egg, and extraordinarily flavourful rice. Each spoon was a swiftly followed by another until of course, the spoons were made to scrap every last broth-soaked grain.
With natural ease, the menu was picked up once again. This time we ordered a green tea almond tofu and strawberry ice cream with premium mochi. The tofu arrived unassumingly, with a wheatgrass-shot-esque green tea companion. The green liquid was poured, and quickly it snaked into the crevices of the tofu. A bite was enough to showcase every flavour, green tea, almond, and a gentle wave of sweetness. The ice cream was standard, but the snack-sized mochi was a treat, even if it was but for one bite.
Hakata Tonton is a restaurant one might think to find in the East Village, with college students trying to sake-bomb their way to oblivion. However, it does shabu shabu just right, a notch above the loud-mouthed ramen purveyers and one below the formality of honor-bound sushi establishments. It finds its home in the West Village, precisely the mix of class and casual that makes eating out there a real treat on a Friday night.
PS. After the first sips of beer and bites of food, the little grey cells started to work and put Matsuhisa with the tip-of-the-tongue name, Nobu.
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61 Grove St
New York, NY 10014