Awash in steam, with condensation dripping down the plate-glass facade, the eatery is toasty; you’ll want to slough off extra layers of clothing once the bubbling broth begins to simmer at the table.
The clean, modern decor — with a long, communal table down the middle of the narrow room, and spare, orderly bottles of sake in wooden boxes decorating the walls — offsets the close warmth.
It’s altogether a pleasant place on wintery days to spend a couple of hours. And it indeed takes a couple of hours (and then some) to eat one of Nabe’s simple, yet epic, dinners.
Nabe is Japanese for hot pot, and the menu has a number of options. Get the half-and-half shabu-shabu — half spicy miso, half kombu (kelp) and water — for the full treatment.
A water-and-kombu broth sounded bland, but as I swished shavings of Wagyu beef and Kurobuta pork shoulder, both marbled and streaked like Jackson Pollack paintings, into the broth (along with the accompanying nabe, flower-shaped carrots, enoki and shiitake mushrooms), its deliciousness became evident. And the pristine, palate-cleansing, silky-bodied broth nicely underpinned the richesse of soup additions.
We would return to it, like a poetic refrain, after bouts of the slightly heavier miso broth, which had the mildest pinpricks of pepper.
A number of ingredients, all well-sourced, may be added to the hot pot. The meat comes from animals raised without antibiotics or hormones, and the vegetables are organic and GMO-free. I’m inclined to add mochi, sticky rice cakes, which comes in cubes that require longer, more attentive cooking than the four-swish treatment I use for sliver-thin cuts of meat.
The sauce for dipping — a complex mix of sunny ponzu, grated daikon and scallion — made every bite sing.
Outside of the shabu-shabu, other nabe options come with ingredients already in the broth as it arrives at the table. I enjoyed the kamonanban made with duck breast and leeks — umami heaven.
I usually find sukiyaki too sweet, but not Nabe’s version. It came with yam noodles, which had a wonderfully dense, slippery texture, and astringent, fragrant shungiku (chrysanthemum greens).
At any hot pot meal, it’s important to pace yourself, and it’s even more important here, because each meal is finished with zosui rice soup, cooked by the waitstaff. It’s made from the broth, now flavor-packed with every ingredient of the meal, rice, softly curdled egg and nori. I found it soothing to nurse it at the end of the meal.
The servers, on both my visits, were efficient, professional and approachable, and they steered me around the menu like quirky taxi drivers. They made it easy to ask questions about how to eat hot pot properly.
While the large communal table makes the place friendly for large parties, it’s not quite the case for smaller groups. On weekdays there are short waits for parties of two, but on weekends, the waits are longer and unpredictable.
For parties of four or more, making a reservation would be a good move — and a worthwhile one, because with Nabe, the more the merrier.
Location: 1325 Ninth Ave., S.F.
Contact: (415) 731-2658, www.nabesf.com
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Sundays
Recommended dishes: Shabu-shabu ($19), Kamonanban ($24), mochi ($4), shungiku ($4)
Price range: $19 to $29
Credit cards: All major