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Umi Shabu Shabu – an all you can eat extravaganza

Umi Shabu Shabu - buffet

All you can eat. Four simple words that have by now either instilled a sense of dread and terror or perhaps, sent a surge of greedy endorphins rushing. Maybe both, we’re complex people after all. Should your tolerance for all things unlimited skew toward the insatiable – let me introduce you to the new Umi Shabu Shabu. Such are the charms of this relatively new South Salt Lake, even a few die-hard never-tongs might be won over too.

The spacious spot on the corner of 27th South and State was most recently home to Big Tortas, Seoul Garden, and Jang Soo Jang before that. Opening late last year, the interior has undergone a complete reworking, with little remaining from tenants prior. Seating is a mix of private booths and roomier tables, as well as a tidy counter space for smaller parties. Thankfully the large parking on the East side of the business remains a holdover from previous businesses.

Shabu-shabu then is the muse of Umi, the Japanese equivalent to Chinese hot pot – a table-top bubbling broth that guests direct themselves. The phrase shabu-shabu translates as swish swish, supposedly the relaxing noise of ingredients swayed back and forth to completion in the cooking pot.

Umi Shabu Shabu - exterior
Umi Shabu Shabu – exterior
Umi Shabu Shabu - wall art
Umi Shabu Shabu – wall art
Umi Shabu Shabu - booth seating with inlaid hot pot
Umi Shabu Shabu – booth seating with inlaid hot pot
Umi Shabu Shabu - counter seating
Umi Shabu Shabu – counter seating

Through the front doors, the central buffet setup immediately greets arrivals. The spread comprises four quadrants: noodles, veggies, proteins, and sauces. From the first, you can select a handsome variety, fat squiggles of udon, dried thin discs of ramen. Rice sticks, purple yam noodles, glass, and vermicelli – there’s plenty to experiment with.

Self serve proteins are respectable, with whole crab, prawn, calamari, and mussels. There are myriad frozen balls, of the type you may have likely spied at Chinese markets, fish and crab and beef. There’s also a geometry (it’s the collective noun thank you) of spam-esque slices, tofu pieces, and rolls.

Veggies line a whole side of the display, a mix of the familiar and more obscure. Bayberries popped up on our most recent visit; and yes, I had to Google that one. Finally, there are sauces and adjuncts, staples like soy and garlic and sriracha, as well as piles of bowls and plates to keep the party moving apace.

But wait. Before we get all eye of newt, it’s time for an appetizer and one of the restaurant’s signature moves. The unlimited app menu is delivered table side via robot. Yes, it’s as much a robot as your calculator is a quantum computer. And yes, it’s gimmicky as hell. But it’s a cold deadened heart that doesn’t giggle and squeal as the automaton wheels its way over to you, all LED hearts for eyes, singing its little song as it delivers up a plate of gyoza and egg rolls.

Umi Shabu Shabu - robot arrives
Umi Shabu Shabu – robot arrives
Umi Shabu Shabu - robot delivery of apps
Umi Shabu Shabu – robot delivery of apps
Umi Shabu Shabu - buffet
Umi Shabu Shabu – buffet
Umi Shabu Shabu - buffet noodles
Umi Shabu Shabu – buffet noodles
Umi Shabu Shabu - buffet veggies
Umi Shabu Shabu – buffet veggies
Umi Shabu Shabu - buffet seafood items
Umi Shabu Shabu – buffet seafood items
Umi Shabu Shabu - buffet sauces
Umi Shabu Shabu – buffet sauces
Umi Shabu Shabu - crafting a plate o glory
Umi Shabu Shabu – crafting a plate o glory

Feel free to welcome back your new pal as many times as you like, but around this point I find myself getting started on the main event. As well as the help-yourself buffet counter, the piece de resistance is an unlimited supply of raw meats. Six cuts of beef (rib eye through brisket) join Australian lamb leg and pork shoulder. Your server will bring these two at a time to your table, thinly sliced.

If you’re new to all of this, the restaurant recommends the following advice for hot pot beginners:

  • Choose your broth
  • Order meat from your server
  • Check out the food bar and create your own shabu plate
  • Wait for the broth to come to a boil
  • Add your vegetables to the broth and let them cook first
  • Cook one piece of meat at a time by swishing it in the broth for 10 seconds
  • Dip your food in the sauces after you cook them

My personal reality differs greatly, and can be approximated as follows:

  • Pick a random broth, consider briefly asking for a blend of three
  • Ask your server how much meat the best person has ever managed in one sitting
  • Reflect if you too can reach those great heights (believe in yourself)
  • Merrily wander off to select an infant like platter of spam and fish balls and hot sauces
  • Realize you’ve achieved zero vegetables and repeat visit to buffet
  • Flip item after item into the pot, impatiently so, prodding often while looking on sagely
  • Attempt to gracefully swish swish that meat, but end up loosing half to the mysteries of the pot
  • Proudly display your final efforts to the table making a huge mess in doing so
  • Forget that the sauces are meant for dipping and add the lot to the pot
  • Work on the proviso that more is better

Broths include beef bone, tonkotsu, sukiyaki, hot and spicy, miso, and tomato (veggies friendly). Of the trio or so I’ve tried, the soups themselves aren’t home to deep flavor per se. The beef bone broth is light with a funky white pepper back note, while the veggie-friendly tomato base is thin with a sharp citric tang. While we could linger on the mild broths, I think that misses the point. This is diner-driven dining, you’re in charge here chef. Speaking of which.

Plonked in your seat you’ll find the controls to your personal pot somewhere around your midriff and bellybutton. You’ll need to navigate your way with the controls, simple as they are, one through five, on and off. My only notable tip – don’t leave that dial set to the max before sauntering off to the buffet – lest you want to return to an ignominiously scaled table.

Umi Shabu Shabu - meats
Umi Shabu Shabu – meats
Umi Shabu Shabu - raw beef
Umi Shabu Shabu – raw beef
Umi Shabu Shabu - raw beef close up
Umi Shabu Shabu – raw beef close up
Umi Shabu Shabu - meat ready for the broth
Umi Shabu Shabu – meat ready for the broth
Umi Shabu Shabu - swish swish beef
Umi Shabu Shabu – swish swish beef
Umi Shabu Shabu - noodlery
Umi Shabu Shabu – noodlery

The restaurant isn’t without quirks, though many of them are happily overlooked; both the sedate atmosphere and green (though fabulously friendly and helpful) staff are nothing more than a restaurant finding its feet – and don’t dampen an overall experience.

Perhaps the largest quibble is the lack of detail on the menu’s centerpiece. Cuts of protein are listed stoically without description. The ambiguity stretches through to the delivery table side, where platters of thinly sliced red meats may be dropped off with bundles of smiles, but little detail.

It can be a hit-and-miss affair cycling through various items to see what works best, and then still to sit perplexed as to what was just swish swished. I will add this also comes from the son of a butcher, many a year spent living above a cold case of hanging viscera. I was able to visually separate the pork from lamb, but brisket from rib eye? It’s a harder challenge.

Minor issues aside, Umi affords a fun dining experience and one that’s extra obvious in these frigid months. The all-you-can-eat experience is priced at $32.99 with the restaurant opening from 3.00 p.m. on weekdays, and mid-morning at weekends. Unlike some places, there’s no dining time limit nor a litany of rules and procedures to observe. There’s a small menu of alcohol (two sake, four beers) and a solo (additionally priced dessert) – but really there’s only one major item to consider – exactly how much meat can one eat in polite company without arousing concern.

2701 S State St, South Salt Lake, UT 84115
(385) 229-4216

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