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Unagi Akimoto: Tradition beats the summer heat

by Robbie Swinnerton

Squeezed in between towering modern neighbors, Akimoto’s traditional low-rise architecture is so self-effacing you barely notice it. From the tiled eaves to the wood-slatted second-floor windows and the sliding door set back from the street, all is inscrutable.

The only modern addition to the exterior is the steel-framed sign hanging above the sidewalk, illuminating a simple brush stroke inside a stylized gourd. Any student of Japanese will recognize the phonetic hiragana character for “u”; any connoisseur of Japanese cuisine will know that it is the first syllable of unagi (eel), Akimoto’s specialty for over a century now.

They will also be well aware that this is the peak season for dining on this plebeian delicacy. Freshwater eel, especially when broiled in the savory kabayaki style, is credited with the marvelous ability to provide energy in face of the debilitating heat of midsummer. And that it is particularly efficacious (or so it is claimed) when consumed on the Day of the Ox in the sweltering dog days of summer known as the doyo period.

Adding a further speculative wrinkle to that gnarled mythology, the Food File would suggest that those restorative qualities are even more impressive when the eel in question is consumed in a setting that is suitably traditional. The surrounding neighborhood may have changed, but Akimoto is just what the doctor ordered.

Slide open the door and you will be greeted by a matron in kimono, who will direct you to a table in the modest dining room, or, should they all be taken, to a bench in the interior corridor leading back toward the kitchen where you can wait your turn. Akimoto is worth the wait.

The slope of the ceiling timbers and the bamboo slats that cover the lower half of the mud-washed walls are almost worthy of a tea cottage, although the unkempt patch of greenery in the pocket handkerchief-size inner garden feels very un-Zenlike in its neglect.

The menu is every bit as traditional as the decor. If broiled eel is not what you’re after, then you are most definitely in the wrong place. As is standard practice, it is served either in a two-tiered lacquer container with the rice separate (ask for kabayaki); laid on top of the rice in a rectangular box (unaju); or on rice in a wide bowl (unadon). Since it is prepared to order, a process that can take as much as 10 minutes, either settle in with a book, admire the surroundings or order up a drink and a couple of starters to tide you over.

The beer (Kirin Gold or old-school Kirin Lager) is kept chilled in a large tank of ice water. The sake is a very ordinary brew (Sawanotsuru honjozo) in the kind of miniatures often stocked at provincial station kiosks. The shochu selection is similarly basic. And don’t even think about asking for wine.

If you want to be fancy, sashimi is available. But most people order the standard unagiya appetizers. There is yahata-maki, lengths of burdock wrapped in strips of cooked eel, a wonderful juxtaposition of textures melded together with a savory seasoning that primes the appetite and goes perfectly with that first beer. There is umaki, soft-cooked eel wrapped inside a roll of sweet, fluffy tamago-yaki omelet. And best of all at this time of year is the delicate and colorful usaku, a salad of yellow chrysanthemum petals, pink myoga ginger and baby cucumber sliced impossibly thin, anointed with a refreshing rice-vinegar-based dressing, topped with a few slices of broiled eel.

By now your unagi will have arrived. Like everything else here, it is simple and just as good as you would expect. The melting-soft texture of the fish is basted with a rich, savory tare sauce that oozes into the rice. Akimoto offers eel of three different grades — and, as so often in this city, it’s worth paying the extra.

A dash of color and texture is provided by the small saucer of pickles. Also included is a small bowl of clear soup (kimosui), at the bottom of which lurk eel livers, whose vitamin D content is reputed to be good for the eyesight.

This is classic unagi, the way it has been served and eaten for a century or more, except in one respect: Akimoto broils over gas rather than charcoal. It’s a small distinction, but one that is important to the gourmets of this city. And that is why Akimoto has retained its sense of being a neighborhood eatery and never become the focus of any cult of celebrity. Long may it stay that way.

This year, unusually, the Day of the Ox occurs twice in the specified doyo season, which means that Unagi Day will be celebrated twice: on July 24 and again on Aug. 5. Expect long lines at Akimoto. In anticipation of demand, Akimoto will also be open on Aug. 10, when, as the second Saturday of the month, the shop would normally be closed.