Pot Points

T here are two sides to Dashi, chef James Nagata says. The front interior of the colorful State Street restaurant is for “comfort food:” Japanese lunchtime staples, from ramen to curried cutlets. But at the rear of the restaurant, the tables can do more, equipped with built-in burners where pots of clear broth bubble and DIY diners dip away, cooking raw proteins, vegetables and noodles to their liking.

It’s called shabu-shabu, and it’s like a milder version of Chinese hot pot. Eaters cook the provided raw ingredients in pots of soup, then fish them out piece by piece, usually swishing them into a bowl of sauce before eating. It’s a communal experience, and according to co-owner and manager Dion Liu, it’s a healthier one, avoiding the heavily-salted, oily broth of the typical Chinese version. “A lot of grease, a lot of MSG,” Liu says with a grimace.

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Open since February, Liu says the restaurant space, carved out of an old industrial building, had been vacant for a year beforehand. One special addition that Nagata and Liu brought to it was a meat slicer not commonly found in the US. “We slice fresh meat, unlike other hotpot places that slice frozen meat,” Liu says. Dashi’s method requires a much more powerful machine; it has to be bolted to the kitchen floor. Nagata suspects it’s the only one of its kind in the country because, when he called the Watanabe company hotline looking for parts, the people on the other end were shocked that one of their specialty slicers had made it to America.

Among options like pork with a spicy Szechuan-style broth, I tried the Beef Shabu-Shabu ($16.95) with a miso broth. A plate of bright red beef came to the table with a spread of other things to add to the pot: Napa cabbage, watercress, white sweet potatoes, chunks of tofu and a sheaf of rice noodles, along with metal tongs and wood-handled ladles. Three sauces, a citrusy ponzu, a sweet and spicy garlic, and a creamy sesame house sauce, were there for post-cook dipping.

The thin beef took the least time to cook, needing just a few swishes in the boiling broth to lose all pinkness. (The bigger challenge is untangling the long slices of raw meat.) The tofu cooked in broth came out savory and custardy, while the vegetables took on the umami flavor of the miso. My favorite of all the provided vegetables was the Japanese sweet potato, with a purple skin and white interior. Taking the longest time to cook, it should be added to the pot first, bubbling away while you eat the rest. After about 15 minutes, the potato turns flaky, and when fished from the pot has a delightfully sweet taste.

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Everything is sliced thin and small enough to make the cooking quick, and it turns into a kind of game, figuring out whose tofu is whose and whether or not the carrots are cooked enough to eat yet.

I also tried the Chicken Katsu Curry ($9.95): a piece of sliced, panko-encrusted chicken covered with a blanket of Japanese curry, which was thicker and milder than most Indian curries. The chicken was crackly and crisp, and the curry’s spice added a vibrant contrast.

Finally, Liu brought me the Hokke Teishoku ($11.95). Hokke is alta mackerel, while a teishoku, Liu tells me, is sort of like a bento box—without the box, and with more specialized components. Arranged on a tray was a long piece of fish, a bowl of miso soup loaded with tofu and a poached egg with an oozing yolk. To the side was a salad, yellow daikon pickles, fried tofu and roasted squash, plus a bowl of woodsy burdock root pickles. The skin of the pleasantly briny fish, which still had a few bones, was charred and scored with neat diamonds, making it easy to pull apart. Despite covering an entire tray, the teishoku was light and easy to finish.

It was an unusual but satisfying dining experience. “New Haven already has so many types of cuisines,” Liu explains. “So we wanted to bring something healthy and also different.” With light bubbling broths, fresh whole ingredients and a divergent take on Japanese food, Dashi is doing just that.

754 State St, New Haven (map)
Tues-Thurs 11:30am-2pm, 5-10pm, Fri-Sat 11:30am-2pm, 5-11pm, Sun 5-9pm
(203) 691-9185

Written and photographed by Anne Ewbank.

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A California native and world traveler, Anne came to New Haven for graduate school and discovered that New England is as cold as everyone said it was. She loves reading books, playing guitar, exploring new towns and taking road trips but only as long as she gets to pick the music.

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