Not so many years ago, unagi, the humble freshwater eel, was considered a plebeian pleasure — a delicacy fit for Tokyo’s townsfolk rather than rarefied levels of society. Much has changed. This once-lowly fish now commands high-end prices worthy of even the most upscale parts of town. This meant that few eyebrows were raised when a branch of Fujita opened in the well-heeled Shirokanedai neighborhood.
It fits perfectly. Fujita is a venerable ryōtei (traditional high-class restaurant) based in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan’s de facto unagi capital, thanks to the eel farms in nearby Lake Hamanako. The restaurant already has a branch in western Tokyo; now it has arrived in the center of the city.
Occupying the third floor of a new building overlooking Shirokanedai’s main boulevard, Gaien-Nishi-dori (a.k.a. “Platinum Avenue”), Fujita exudes quiet refinement. From the snow-white noren curtain at the entrance to the soft soundtrack of koto music and the okami (proprietor) who pads around in kimonoed finery, all is soothingly elegant.
Equally reassuring is the grill that greets you front and center as you step through the door, with a chef carefully fanning glowing coals behind the protective glass. As with any ingredient, unagi is so much tastier when cooked over charcoal. This is borne out when you try the shirayaki, a fillet that is simply grilled until lightly crisp and served with a dab of grated wasabi root, without masking the flavor of the fish.
While the shirayaki makes a fine appetizer, perhaps with some beer on the side, there are plenty of other good side dishes if you have time to explore the menu. Two standards are umaki (eel rolled in omelet) and uzaku, squares of grilled eel topped with fine-sliced cucumber and bathed in a refreshing, light ponzu (citrus soy sauce). Both are prepared expertly here.
Another traditional favorite at many unagi restaurants is eel liver, which has long been reputed to be good for the eyes. When simply boiled, the livers tend to be bitter and rubbery in texture. But skewered and grilled, they are a lot more palatable and pair excellently with sake — of which there’s a good selection here, including Shizuoka’s very own Kaiun. Far more unusual, Fujita also deep-fries the livers in a crisp batter — an original tempura-style recipe that works well.
Apart from the tempura, these starters are all included in the upper of the two set menus (¥5,400 or ¥6,480; reservations required). At lunch, a lighter menu is also offered (¥2,700), although this is billed as the “ladies set meal.” All include the classic broiled preparation known as unaju, in which the eel is filleted, steamed, broiled and basted with the classic salty-sweet kabayaki sauce and served on rice.
Famously, Tokyo and Osaka have different styles of grilling unagi. Shizuoka has adopted both approaches. Which does Fujita employ? It’s a hybrid, they say: filleted the Tokyo way, but grilled crisp, Osaka-style. The best of both worlds, in fact.
Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.
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