Tuesday, March 25, 2014

More Tokyo - The refined, old-school Unagi Akimoto

I dashed through immigration and customs, hopped on to Narita Express, arrived at downtown Tokyo and checked in to my hotel at record speed (in less than 2 hours), all because I was starving and in desperate need for food as I got off the plane. And one metro stop away from my hotel in Akasaka, I arrived at a quiet neighborhood of Kojimachi slightly after 5pm, in front of a tiny restaurant called Unagi Akimoto, a 105 year old "institution" specializing in Unagi, or freshwater eel, cuisine. The restaurant just opened for dinner service at 5, but I decided to call this meal a late lunch instead, an excuse for myself to stuff myself with more food later on, at "proper" dinner hours.

The restaurant was housed inside a traditional Japanese building with a huge sign of the Japanese character う, the first character of Unagi (うなぎ) As I opened the sliding door, I was greeted by 2 ladies dressed in kimono and was shown a seat inside the dining room with only a handful of tables. The decor was classic and modest, like a simple neighborhood eatery.

I realized I made a mistake of not studying their menu on the website earlier, as they don't have English menu available. But since they serve only unagi dishes, it turned out to be a minor problem, as I was able to order a few items from the a la carte menu by my educated guess.

My appetizer soon arrived. The umaki (鰻巻) - with a piece of broiled eel wrapped inside an egg omelet roll - was as soft as it could get without turning into a watery, mushy sort of texture. The eel was creamy and the egg was moist and sweet but not so much as in hiding the strong egg-y taste.

The signature dish of the restaurant is of course the Unagi Kabayaki, or grilled eel. You can either order it as Una-don (うな丼) with the eel sitting on top of the rice in a bowl, or Unaju (うな重) with eel and rice served separately in a two-level lacquered box, each with different price categories depending on the size and quality of the eel. I went for Unaju Ume, which was the second highest category, and came in as a sizable portion, as I unveiled the upper level of the round lacquered box with the shiny, well-cooked piece of freshwater eel.

The eel was cooked in the traditional edomae way, where the fish was filleted with bones removed, steamed and then grilled in medium heat with constant basting of tare sauce so the sauce can slowly and subtly infuse into the meat. It's rich yet refined. Again, the eel texture was just firm enough to be able to pick up with chopsticks yet retained the "melt-in-your-mouth" tenderness. While I felt like this hardly needed any additional seasonings, a tiny spoonful of sansho pepper powder didn't hurt.

I was in the legendary Nodaiwa Honten a few months ago (blog post in Chinese here) and I would say this is equally good, if not better than the version I had there. That may also have to do with the quiet surroundings here being one of the few customers this early during their dinner service, as opposed to the packed room at Nodaiwa (and a 30 minute wait for the table) last time I was there for lunch. I also liked the oshinkou of pickled daikon and cabbage that went with the rice - it's fresh, crispy and not overly salty.

I finished with a small cup of kimosui (きも吸物), a clear soup (suimono) with eel guts and a couple small round awa-fu gluten dumplings. The soup was tasty with that refreshing aroma of yuzu zest.

The food and decor might be simple at this restaurant, but the dishes were well-prepared and surroundings comfortable. It's a sweet, little restaurant that I don't mind coming back to visit for any given day for a casual meal - whether for lunch or dinner.

Full set of pictures on my flickr page: http://www.flickr.com/photos/g4gary/sets/72157642745301104/

Where? Unagi Akimoto, 3-4-4 Kojimachi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo うなぎ秋本 東京都千代田区麹町3-4-4
Menu highlights? Unaju, grilled eel served with rice in a layered lacquered box.
Web: www.unagi-akimoto.com

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