Tradition is comforting, no matter whose culture it is. We eat plum pudding for Christmas, mochi at New Year and moon cakes to mark the Autumn Festival. We throw beans at setsubun and, on Valentines’ Day, we will gladly accept as much chocolate as comes our way.
But when the Day of the Ox comes round at the end of this month, on July 28, we will not be feasting on unagi like the rest of Japan’s populace. That’s not because we aren’t partial to the tender white flesh of grilled eel. Quite the opposite — in fact we indulge year-round. Nor do we disdain the claims that it combats lethargy and debilitation in the dog days of midsummer (or any other time, for that matter).
No, the main reason that we put all cravings for eel on hold on that particular day is that our favorite purveyors are always so popular it’s impossible to get inside the door. If you’ve ever visited Hatsuogawa, you will understand entirely.
This wonderful little place is one of Tokyo’s modest, unsung classics. Founded back in the 40th year of Meiji (1908), it wears its history on its battered facade. With its weather-beaten eaves and scrubby array of pot plants shaded by a substantial biwa tree, it would barely be worth a second glance were it not for the crisp white noren emblazoned in hiragana.
Inside, the patina of time is even thicker. Barely 3 meters across at its widest, the dining room is cluttered with the detritus of decades — dusty wooden beams, jizo statues, folksy accouterments, moldering fans, ancient ema tablets and other unidentifiable knickknacks. On one side an ancient telephone and clock; on the other, a shadowy butsudan (family altar); above your head the ceiling is blackened with half a century of smoke.
The main dining table is a customized, glass-covered irori (grill), just large enough to seat seven. By the entrance there’s a raised area big enough for two very small people to sit cross-legged in considerable discomfort. The small tatami room at the very back is quintessential Showa. You could have wandered onto the set for an Ozu movie — “Unagi Monogatari” perhaps.
The menu is inscribed on handwritten tags of paper over the entrance to the kitchen. Even the prices are written in Japanese, but that’s no cause for concern if you don’t understand it since everything is very reasonable. Settle in with a bottle of beer (your choice of small, medium or large) or a tokkuri of sake. It will be served with crunchy hone-senbei, lightly salted deep-fried spines of the eels that have been served earlier in the day. They are so addictive, you are likely to order seconds.
There are a few other light sake accompaniments to keep you occupied while you wait for your main course. Itawasa (slices of cold kamaboko with a wasabi-shoyu dip) and mozuku (a sludge of vinegared seaweed) are both of minority interest. Another culinary adventure is kimo-yaki (630 yen), skewers of grilled eel liver. The texture is gourmet smooth, but they hide a sharp bitterness that we found was perfectly matched with a swig or three of the sake, a rough, workingman’s brew that is best drunk warm (ask for atsukan).
But the main order of business is, of course, eel. At Hatsuogawa, the fillets are first steamed, then grilled over charcoal in small, individual burners, one serving at a time. The most popular dish, as at any unagi restaurant, is unaju — grilled, soy-basted eel laid out on a bed of rice in an ornate lacquer-look box. The soft, melting texture of the fish; the savory tang of the basting sauce; a light dash of tongue-tingling sansho pepper; the neutral, comforting backdrop of that steaming white rice — this is gourmet fare that we all can afford.
Alternatively, ask for kabayaki — just the eel alone, daubed with thick, sweet-savory tare sauce, but with the rice (it is a particularly flavorful variety) served separately in small wooden ohitsu tubs. They also offer shirayaki, served not with that rich sauce but instead just a dab of wasabi and a shoyu dip, so you can appreciate better the subtle flavor of the charcoal-crisped fish.
Whichever style, the prices are the same. But you will be asked what size of fillet you want: small (1,365 yen), medium (1,785 yen) or large (2,310 yen). We found that the medium is more than adequate, especially if preceded by a few starters.
This may not by any means be the finest unagi in Tokyo (see below for other suggestions). But the pleasure of a meal at Hatsuogawa runs far deeper. Here tradition lives year-round — not just for a single day in midsummer.
For unagi of considerably greater refinement, make your way to Nodaiwa, in Higashi-Azabu. The main building is an old kura storehouse, with wooden panels and plush banquettes. A grand staircase leads to private rooms upstairs where you can match your eel with chilled Chablis or Pol Roget. With airs (and prices) like this, no wonder they are said to supply special orders to the Imperial Palace.
But the reason we rate it so highly is that their unagi is caught from the wild (most shops use eels raised in intensive fish farms from imported Taiwanese fry). The difference in flavor and texture is as significant as between flabby broiler chickens and free-range jidori. But because supplies of wild unagi are limited, and Nodaiwa does not like to stint its regular clientele, it usually closes its doors when Unagi Day comes around. It’s that sort of place.
Nodaiwa: 1-5-4 Higashi-Azabu, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 3583-7852. Nearest stations: Kamiyacho, Akabanebashi. Open 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m. (last order) and 5-8 p.m. (last order); closed Sundays. Cash only (no credit cards); reservations accepted only for groups.
Like so many of the best eel restaurants, Kandagawa Honten keeps the old traditions alive in a setting that’s almost a time warp. It’s just spitting distance from the electric frazzle of Akihabara, but once you are inside this venerable wooden townhouse you feel a century or more removed.
The atmosphere is simple but elegant. The waitresses wear kimono. The unagi is first rate, and priced accordingly. The tatami rooms look out over a small garden. But space is limited, so don’t expect to walk in without reserving in advance.
Kandagawa Honten: 2-5-11 Soto-Kanda, Chiyoda-ku; tel: (03) 3251 5031. Nearest station: Akihabara. Open 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. and 5-7:30 p.m.; closed Sunday, second Saturday, holidays unaju from 3,200 yen; reservations essential.
Many people — the Food File included — believe that the finest kabayaki in Tokyo is that served at Obana. It’s certainly the oldest unagi shop in the city, dating back to the time when Senju was one of Edo’s execution grounds and the eels grew fat in the nearby watercourses. These days, most of their unagi are still caught from the wild, although sourced from far less grizzly environs.
The architecture is traditional, gleaming from recent refurbishment. You will not find fresher unagi than this — it is gutted and fillted to order, before being broiled, over charcoal, of course. That’s why you can wait in line for as much as half an hour to get through the door. Bring your parasol.
Obana: Minami-Senju 5-33-1, Arakawa-ku; tel: (03) 3801-4670. Nearest station: Minami-Senju. Open: Tuesday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. and 4-7:30 p.m. (Saturday, Sunday & holidays 11:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m.); closed Monday. No reservations taken — just get in line.