The Great Heat has returned, blanketing the city, sapping our energy and, worse yet, stifling all appetite for food. There’s only one solution for lifting that summer lethargy — at least if you hold with local lore: It’s time to feast on that supreme summer specialty, unagi eel.
Whether or not you believe in its restorative powers to combat the debilitating midsummer heat, there’s no denying that kabayaki grilled eel is one of Tokyo’s great plebeian pleasures. Or that there’s any finer setting for indulging than at the wonderful Myojinshita Kandagawa Honten.
With its proud timber facade, dry rock garden and gateway flanked by gnarled pines, this is one of the city’s classic restaurants. The building itself is just 60 years old, rebuilt in traditional style after the destruction of World War II. However, Kandagawa Honten can trace its lineage all the way back to 1805, when the city was known as Edo and broiled eel was a hot new delicacy that was all the rage.
As the name suggests, it stands at the base of the bluff on which Kanda Myojin Shrine is located. In reality, it’s closer to the bustle and frazzle of Akihabara. Brush past the noren curtain and through the doors, though, and you are a million miles from the world of electronics emporiums and cosplay cafes.
Much as if entering an elegant ryokan, you slip off your shoes and step up onto the polished wooden floor. A waitress in simple kimono will guide you to one of the tatami rooms — the best are on the second floor overlooking the garden. Whether you’re there as a group or dining solo, you just sit back (as best you can on zabuton cushions) in pampered privacy and wait for your meal to be served.
For all the sense of exclusivity, the food is very simple. And there’s virtually nothing on the menu that does not include eel. The fundamental choice is how you want to eat it: served on a bed of rice (unaju), or with separate bowls of rice and soup (standard kabayaki). At lunchtime either should be quite sufficient on its own. But in the evening, we like to order a few side dishes, with a drink or two, while we wait for our main course.
The beer — there’s a choice; we prefer Yebisu — will come with nibbles. At this time of year, there will be edamame beans and perhaps some kamaboko fish cake. The other day, we were served cream cheese (a strange idiosyncrasy) in tiny cubes, topped, as if it were tofu, with finely chopped scallions and soy sauce.
Not to be missed is the uzaku (¥1,050), a few squares of savory eel served with thinly sliced baby cucumbers in a lightly sweetened vinegar sauce. Not only refreshing in this hot weather, this also helps to balance the richness of the eel that will arrive later in the meal.
The only other side dish is umaki (¥1,680), a take on classic tamagoyaki (Japanese style omelet) but folded around a small piece of broiled eel. The egg is hot and fluffy. But be warned: it is so intensely sweet you might rather prefer it served as dessert.
As at any self-respecting specialist restaurant, the eels are prepared and broiled to order. This means it can take half an hour or so before they are served. That time can be reduced slightly if you order shirayaki, fillets that are lightly grilled, then steamed and served “white,” without being basted with sauce. Instead, you eat it with a dipping sauce and a dab of wasabi, as if it were sashimi. It’s traditional to eat this as a side dish; we find it works well as the main course on days when the appetite is feeble.
However, the classic preparation — the restorative recipe that everyone is there for — is the kabayaki. Whether you prefer it on its own or served on top of rice, it comes lavishly daubed with savory-sweet tare sauce. And here again, tradition counts for everything.
Kandagawa Honten’s proprietary sauce literally dates back centuries. It’s been handed down from one generation to the next, constantly topped up but never exhausted. Much like the soup stocks in some European kitchens, the sourdough starters of a traditional baker or the solera barrels at a sherry bodega, it maintains a physical continuity over the years and decades — a literal, physical connection that goes back to the days of the restaurant’s founding.
So is this the best unagi in Tokyo? Truth to tell, the flavor is underwhelming. The eel itself is so delicate and carefully cooked it’s hard to believe it has been anywhere near a charcoal grill. And the rooms are so far from the kitchen that everything arrives less than piping hot.
We could name half a dozen places where the taste of the unagi is more robust and forthright. But in terms of ambience and refinement, none come close to holding a candle to Kandagawa Honten.
For a glossary of unagi-related terms, see the box at the bottom of this story.