Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Eating in Kyoto: Unagiya Hirokawa

Unagiya Hirokawa is a restaurant close to Arashiyama JR station in the suburb of Kyoto, right across the street from the spectacular Tenryuji Temple - a UNESCO heritage site. As the name suggests, the restaurant is specialized in unagi - the grilled freshwater eel. You might find una-don (grilled eel with rice) often in Japanese restaurant around the world, but rarely would you find one specialized in this anywhere except in Japan.

The restaurant is located in a traditionally decorated 2-storey wooden house - tables and private rooms on the second floor is available for reservation while the first floor tables are for walk-in customers only. We made the right decision in booking the table in advance - by the time we arrived for lunch there are at least 40 people in line - waiting from inside the restaurant to outside - and the wait would have been hours. Plus our table by the window on the second floor offers a wonderful view of the Tenryuji Temple right across the street and the mountains as the backdrop. It's tranquil and comfortable, in stark contrast to the crowded street outside.

The restaurant got their daily supply of eels from different farms in Japan depending on the season - they post a sign at the entrance indicating where they are from on any given day. (For the day we went, the eels came from Shizuoka or Miyazaki prefectures) Call me discrimination if you want, but I found eels raised in Japan have a much firmer texture and cleaner taste (compared to the more commonly found ones raised in China which are usually mushy and bland).

Unagiya Hirokawa offers a simple menu with most of the dishes created with eels (or other freshwater fishes), including their signature Unadon which came in 3 different sizes. We ordered one of the lunch sets offered to get a good combination of dishes, then supplement with a couple a la carte dishes.

We started with a cold appetizer of uzaku - the grilled fresh eel and pickled cucumber. The eel was grilled and cut into a strips, and lightly brushed with sweet syrup - that reminded me of the crispy eels in Shanghainese cuisine. The cucumber was sliced very thinly and served in sweet vinegar. A refreshing appetizer.

Kimoyaki - Grilled eel liver in a skewer. I love the texture of the eel liver as it's fatty, rounded and delicate, and the sauce that came with it is just the right balance of the seasonings. You might think it will be a bit bitter, but not a hint of that I can assure you. It's nicely grilled, but I did expect a more rustic, charcoal flavor.

Koi no arai - half boiled fresh carp. Almost like a sashimi, except it's flash boiled in hot water and is served with soy sauce and wasabi. We had something similar in Cantonese cuisine so that's no surprise. The texture is firm, bouncy and with a fresh taste - not a trace of muddy or fishy flavor which is common if the fish is not fresh or the water in which the fish is from is not clean.

Unajyu - Grilled eel with special sauce on top of rice (medium size) - served in the oblong lacquer box. Now I realized what the hype is about for this restaurant as this is one perfect rice box. The eel has just the right texture and size, it's grilled with perfect timing with the right amount of grill mark but not over-grilled to a point of bringing about bitterness. The sauce is well-balanced and doesn't overwhelmed the whole dish, but did bring this enticing savory-sweet taste to it. And the rice is well-cooked and of the right texture too. I reckon this alone might worth the detour, even if I have to come all the way from Kyoto/Osaka just for this.

Yanagawa - Boiled loaches in broth and scrambled eggs, served in a stone pot (nabe). That reminded me of oyakodon (traditional rice with chicken and eggs) except loaches - a type of small freshwater fish - were used. I can imagine this is a comforting, hearty winter dish with a bite of the fish simmering in bubbling hot broth while glancing at the passers-by outside walking on the chilly street. We ordered this from the a la carte menu.

Sirayaki - Grilled whole eel. This is served without the traditional glaze. It's not part of the set menu but since I wanted a clearer taste of the fish I ordered this one in addition to our box of Unajyu. It's served with wasabi, white radish mash and soy sauce on the side. Well, I got what I wanted and it's delicious, but in retrospect, I do prefer the one with the traditional sauce with its sweet-savory flavor.

And a tip - in winter sometimes they also have naturally caught eels available. It's not on the menu and of limited quantity so please call ahead to check if they are available and reserve in advance. It's around twice as much as the regular one, but you won't find this often in other restaurants (and definitely not outside Japan) and from what I heard, it tasted even better.

If you happen to make a detour to visit this picturesque suburb of Arashiyama not far away from either Osaka or Kyoto, this restaurant is a must-visit.

A few months ago I also had an amazing eel meal in Tokyo, at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in the Ikebukuro neighborhood. Totally different style than Hirokawa, but equally amazing head-to-tail unagi cuisine. New York Times recently ran an article about the restaurant, so please check it out here.

When? November 30 2012
Where? Unagiya Hirokawa, 44-1 Kitatsukurimichicho, Sagatenryuji, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto
うなぎ屋 廣川 京都市右京区嵯峨天龍寺北造路町44-1
Web: www.unagi-hirokawa.jp/english/index.html


gary s said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Hi there,

Just wondering how far in advance would you advise to reserve a table over there? By My husband and I are visiting Kyoto in December and would like to eat there.

Many thanks,
~ Mai

gary s said...

Well I reckon one month in advance should be good enough, but they do only have a limited amount of tables available for booking.

Swee said...

Hi, Can I know how did you make the reservation ? Is there any email? Thank you.

gary s said...

I asked the hotel concierge to help make reservation for me.

Swee San said...