Restaurants don’t get much more traditional-looking than Tamai — not in Tokyo, anyway. Squeezed in between the banal office architecture of its neighbors, this old-school grilled-eel specialist bears witness to a kinder, gentler time when the city was all low-rise residences and shops, with Nihonbashi as its thriving, commercial heart.
Appearances can be deceptive. Tamai’s handsome, two-story, timber building may have stood here for more than seven decades, but the restaurant itself is a brash newcomer. It was founded just 10 years ago, taking over the atmospheric premises of a former sake merchant.
Tamai also veers from tradition when it comes to its specialty. The type of eel it serves is anago (a type of conger or sea eel), rather than the more usual unagi (freshwater eel). In the old days, anago was more of a bit-part fish, commonly batter-fried at tempura restaurants or lightly simmered and served as sushi. Rarely is it elevated to the starring act on a menu, as it is here.
The specialty of the house is hako-meshi — think of it as anago dolled up to look like unagi. The conger is filleted, simmered and then grilled and basted with a dark soy sauce and served over white rice in a rectangular faux-lacquer box.
It is a copy of the classic unagi preparation known as kabayaki, and just as tasty. Conger flesh is softer, lighter and less oily than freshwater eel. On the downside, it also absorbs the sauce more readily, so the flavor of the fish is less apparent. Together with a bowl of miso soup and some pickles on the side, this makes a good, simple, filling square meal.
At midday, when most of the local crowd are on their lunch break, there is a rapid turnover of tables that makes it worth joining the line outside. But in the evening, Tamai takes on a far more relaxed style. With an extensive a la carte menu and a strong sake list, it essentially becomes an eel-centric izakaya (traditional tavern).
Whether you’re just dropping in or planning to kick back and stay for an extended session of nibbling and sipping, there’s only one place to start: an order of eel bones. If you’ve never had hone-senbei (literally “bone crackers”) before, prepare to be amazed.
The spines of the anago that have been filleted for grilling are cleaned and deep-fried until they are as crunchy and addictive as corn chips — although, with their great calcium content, they are considerably healthier for you.
The hone-senbei go great with beer, but there are plenty of side dishes that go just as well with sake. Don’t miss out on the anago tempura. The fluffy white flesh is encased in crisp batter like the fish and chips of your dreams. Or try the saikyo-yaki, where fillets of eel are basted with a light layer of savory-sweet miso before being grilled.
If you arrive at Tamai and find it full, do not despair. There are two other branches close at hand, although neither boast the same traditional architecture. Or go around the corner to their sake bar, Kawaguchi Saketen (03-6225-2850), and wait for a table to free up.
Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.
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