Unagi slips into a more refined mode


The dog days of summer will soon be upon us, and panting hard on their heels comes the annual unagi feeding frenzy. Across the length and breadth of the country, vast numbers of slithering eels will be slaughtered, filleted, broiled and basted, all in the name of hallowed tradition.

There is, of course, no science to back the belief that eating eel on the Day of the Ox that falls during the doyo period of early summer — this year on July 23 — is extra efficacious. What started as an inspired P.R. campaign during Edo times soon became an ingrained article of faith and is now a media-perpetuated custom.

But no matter what the reason or time of year, we need no encouragement to seek out good unagi. After all, it is one of the unsung delicacies of Japanese cuisine — especially when broiled and seasoned in the style known as kabayaki. The only reason why this succulent food is not accorded greater respect is because most eel houses are simple places, often smoky and scruffy, that purveyno-nonsense shitamachi values, notuptown refinement.

Kikukawa, on the northern fringes of Kanda, has carefully followed that template for half a century. But its newer, larger branch in Kami-Noge breaks the traditional mold in several distinctive ways. The handsome, tiled gateway and walls plastered a distinguished shade of cerise exude a quiet, classyconfidence that fits perfectly in the quiet, residential streets of Setagaya-ku.

This same tasteful, contemporary take on classic homegrown architecturecontinues inside, with rustic ceilings and lamp fixtures, polished wooden floors, and even a small interior garden with a carp pond. The main dining room hastatami mats, with horigotatsu-style leg wells for greater comfort. There areprivate rooms upstairs, also in Japanese style. A wooden counter runs along two sides of the spotless open kitchen, where a bevy of white-clad chefs labor silently over their chopping blocks, slicingsashimi and paring vegetables.

It is not so unusual that the grill is hidden out of sight, to eliminate all wafting smoke or smell. Where Kikukawa deviates radically from its roots is in the range of food it offers. Most unagiya — including Kikukawa’s parent restaurant in Kanda — serve nothing but the eel (though a very few may go as far as to offer yakitori). Here in genteel Kami-Noge, though, the standard menu ofkabayaki, shirayaki and other unagi standards is complemented by a sophisticated range of Japanese ryori.

You can order meals ranging in price and complexity from full kaisekibanquets (from 12,000 yen per head) to less elaborate trays (from 4,700 yen) featuring a selection of small dishes includingsashimi and chawan-mushi (savory egg custard), along with various forms of eel. The best value of these set meals is the abbreviated version of the Kikuzen Course offered on weekdays (3,500 yen, available up to 4 p.m.).

The jet-black, rounded lacquerware tray holds half-a-dozen exquisite dishes, among them: a chunky liqueur glass containing dark-green nama-nori seaweed in a lightly vinegared stock as a refreshing aperitif to open our taste buds; a dressed aemono “salad” featuring assorted cuts of crab and white-meat fish, in a light, sesame-imbued dressing; and a dainty ceramic bowl with lid, holding a cube of soft-simmered, pale green togan (winter melon), its subtle flavorenhanced by a small slice of gelatinous fukahire (shark’s fin). This is highlysophisticated cuisine, well worthy of the setting.

The centerpiece of the tray is the rectangular box, in black and red lacquerware, which holds the unaju. You raise the lid to reveal two glistening golden-brown fillets of eel laid across a bed of rice, anointed with a savory tare basting sauce that gives only the gentlest hint of sweetness. The eel is excellent –although we do prefer the depth of flavor gained from grilling over charcoal (here they use gas burners) — as is thefragrant kimo-sui, clear soup containing bitter-tasting eel liver. To round off the meal, you are given a single litchi.

Even aficionados will admit that eel is a fatty fish, and it is very welcome to be able to balance its rich taste with a range of lighter, subtler flavors. However, multicourse meals like this take time to prepare, and that is why most lunchtime customers instead order the unaju solo.

Be warned though: unagi is not a fast food. The complex process of grilling, steaming and grilling again can take about 20 minutes. But thanks to the good range of side dishes to nibble on, and fine Tengumai yamahai sake to sip, there can be few unagi restaurants where the waiting is more pleasurable.

Kikukawa’s original shop, in Kanda, is an unagiya of very traditional stripe, with an unpretentious dining room(entirely no-smoking) and a limited menu of unagi standards.

1-24-2 Kanda-Sudacho, Chiyoda-ku; tel: (03) 3251-1506. r.gnavi.co.jp/g116702/ Open weekdays 11 a.m.-9 p.m. (Saturday, Sunday & holidays 11 a.m.-8 p.m.); no credit cards (cash only)

Unagi — a glossary

Unagi – freshwater eel, formerly caught in rice paddies and streams, now generally fish-farmed. The leading center for raising unagi is Lake Hamana, near Hamamatsu in Shizuoka Prefecture. In the Kansai region, eel is often called mamushi (literally “viper”).

Shirayaki – fillets of eel, skewered on bamboo kushi and slowly broiled until slightly crisp on the outside but not browned at all (hence the name, literally “white grilled”). This is usually eaten with a dip of plain shoyu (soy sauce) with wasabi, as if for sushi.

Kabayaki – the eel fillets are prepared as shirayaki, then placed in a steamer for about 20 minutes (this softens the flesh, and also helps leech out some of the fattiness); finally the fillets are dipped in tare sauce and grilled again until they are a rich, golden-brown color. This is served on its own plate, with rice (if required) on the side. In Kansai, the steaming process is omitted.

Unaju – unagi prepared in the kabayaki style, served over rice in rectangular lacquer (or lacquer-look) boxes, usually with kimo-sui soup and some pickled vegetables.

Unadon – short for unagi donburi; similar to unaju, but served over rice in round, wide donburi bowls.

Umaki – savory minced eel, folded inside dashi-maki tamago (fluffy Japanese-style omelet).

Uzaku – morsels of grilled eel served with sliced cucumber in a sanbaizu (rice vinegar/shoyu/dashi) dressing.

Kimo-sui – a suimono (clear soup) containing the liver of the eel and fragrant mitsuba herb, usually served with unaju. Eel liver is said to be good for eyesight.

Kimo-yaki – eel liver, skewered and grilled, often eaten with shichimi (seven spice).

Sansho – aromatic green Japanese pepper, in powder form; also one of the seven spices in shichimi.

Tare – the thick, rich, soy-based basting sauce used to add flavor to the kabayaki; prepared from shoyu, dashi stock, mirin (sweet cooking liquor) and sugar.

Other popular eel dishes include yanagawa-nabe, a casserole made with finely shaved burdock, grilled eel and egg; and hitsumabushi — a style of eating grilled eel with rice (including with hot green tea poured over it, like ochazuke) that’s especially popular in the Nagoya area.