Celebrated literary and cookbook editor Judith B. Jones once said, “Cooking demands attention, patience, and above all, a respect for the gifts of the Earth. It is a form of worship, a way of giving thanks.” Chefs and culinarians would agree that the foundation of a dish is in its ingredients, as well as the esteem one pays to quality and flavor, which is at the heart of Crab King, Bellevue’s latest addition to the Pacific Northwest’s reputation as a crustacean nation.
A love of seafood and an extensive career in the restaurant industry brought husband and wife team Xiaomeng and Peipei Liu to Washington after many years abroad, living and working in China and Japan. “My husband was in the restaurant business in China for 20 years,” said Peipei Liu, co-owner and general manager of Crab King. Husband Xiaomeng’s experience was key in the two-year construction of the restaurant that now sits in the prime corner space of Crossroads Mall overlooking the crowds coming and going from the movie theater and the bustling foot traffic around the popular retail complex.
Crab King’s involved build-out was for something unique that makes it stand out from other restaurants. The dining area has an eclectic collection of art as well as rare tea sets (the Lius are tea aficionados), there’s an Eastside-chic bar and patio, but amid its modern particulars, each table has a heating element in its center, encouraging a traditional method of dining that encompasses both the appreciation of food as well as the company gathered around it.
It’s called shabu-shabu, and it’s as delightful to say as it is to eat. It’s a popular Japanese method of eating thin-sliced meats, seafood, and vegetables, swirled in a hot broth that lightly seasons and gently cooks each bite. Shabu-shabu is an onomatopoeic term, simply referring to the sound the ingredients make as they swish and stir in the stock. A relatively modern 20th-century dining trend, shabu-shabu’s origins are rooted in the 1,000-year-old hot pot method of cooking, originally from China, where pieces of beef or mutton were quickly cooked in an iron pot of simmering broth. Hot pot restaurants remain popular today, reflecting different regional styles, and shabu-shabu is another delicious option for diners eager to be hands-on with their meals.
Crab King prepares a special house broth, and the flavor doesn’t overwhelm the delicacy of the crabmeat, yet still enhances the richer flavors of meat, shellfish, and vegetables. “We always suggest for them to boil the crab first,” Peipei Liu explains. “The broth is very special, made just for the shabu-shabu. We recommend them to do the crab first, to taste the freshness.” Crab King attracts those already familiar with shabu-shabu and hot pot dining, but staffers encourage people new to the method to give it a try.
“Everyone likes it. A lot of people have said we will be back just for the cod,”
“I lived in Sapporo for seven years, and my husband loves Japanese food. I’m Chinese, but I love Japanese food more!” Peipei Liu admits with a laugh, describing how she fell in love with the regional cuisine. She recalls her own experience living in Japan, attending school there, and working part-time in restaurants. Already in love with seafood, sushi became a favorite, and traveling through Japan with her husband, they were especially inspired by the shabu-shabu restaurant Kani-Shogun, as famous for its food as the giant robotic crab sign above its entrance.
True to its name, Crab King offers long, spiny Alaska red king crab legs, yielding the meaty spears of sweet crab meat, as well as the equally sweet snow crab for shabu-shabu, or served as an entrée. Live Dungeness crab is prepared whole, served as a traditional Chinese salt and pepper crab dish with sesame soba noodles. Their appreciation for seafood includes fish as well; Peipei notes that the black cod marinated in miso paste has become a favorite. “Everyone likes it. A lot of people have said we will be back just for the cod,” she said, describing how Japanese chefs from other restaurants mention how excellent it is. It’s also one of the few places offering the prized Miyazaki grade Wagyu beef served thinly sliced over rice as hand-formed sushi, beautifully marbled to where it literally melts in your mouth.
The jewel of Crab King’s crown remains its shabu-shabu. It’s designed to be an experiential meal, ideal for groups, and it typically lasts for two hours. An unhurried feast where people gather and talk over their meal, it’s something to savor; in an age where everything seems to go by so quickly, the Old World tradition of taking one’s time feels like a new luxury.