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Matsuyoshi: Old-style eel with a neighborhood feel

by Robbie Swinnerton

Throughout Tokyo and the rest of the country, eel restaurants are gearing up for the annual “Unagi Day” feeding frenzy. The exact dates are determined according to the old almanac on the midsummer Day (or Days) of the Ox, which this year falls on July 26. And the longest lines will be outside some of the city’s most illustrious eateries.

History counts for plenty in the pecking order of Tokyo’s top unagi specialists. The best known — such as Kandagawa Honten, Nodaiwa in Minami-Azabu, Chikuyotei in Ginza or the wonderful Obana out in Minami-Senju — trace their histories back for a century or more. But there are scores of smaller neighborhood restaurants where tradition and flavor are every bit as important.

Compared to the big names, Matsuyoshi is a relative newcomer, founded a mere 60 years ago. But in terms of appearance, it’s an unassuming shitamachi (low city) classic. Hidden away on a small side street in Nihonbashi, close to the Tokyo Stock Exchange, its humble low-rise wooden architecture has remained unchanged inside and out from the day it opened for business. And so has the way the eel is cooked and served by Enomoto-san, the genial second-generation owner-chef.

He keeps a bucket of live eels under his kitchen floorboards. When an order comes in, he fishes one out, fillets and skewers it, then grills it slowly over charcoal. After steaming the fillets for five minutes or so, he dips them into his vat of special tare sauce and returns them to the grill again.

Once they’re golden-brown and spitting hot, he serves them over rice as unaju, in square lacquer-look boxes (¥2,000, ¥2,500 or ¥3,000) along with a small bowl of kimo-jiru, a clear soup containing a single whole eel liver (rubbery, slightly bitter and considered exceptionally healthy, especially for the eyesight).

Except at lunchtime, when he also offers a ¥1,000 unadon (on a small donburi bowl of rice; no soup), that’s all he does. And when he runs out of eels, he shuts up shop for the day. This is the way unagi has always been served, since the earliest days — without fuss or pretension, but with the unhurried craftsmanship of tradition.

Matsuyoshi 9-5 Nihonbashi-Kabutocho, Chuo-ku; (03) 3666-0732; open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. (or until sold out); closed Sun. and holidays. Nearest stations: Nihonbashi (Asakusa Line) or Kayabacho (Tozai and Hibiya Lines)