Although unagi is available all year round, its popularity surges in Japan during the summer months, from June to August. The Japanese eat unagi to commemorate Doyo no Ushi no Hi, which translates to “the midsummer day of the year of the ox”. Dating back to the Edo period, this tradition of feasting on unagi is a way to prevent heat fatigue during the summer months. Consuming eel is also believed to help improve one’s health as the fish is high in omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin A and protein.
The Japanese freshwater eel, or unagi, is hardly the most appealing of sea creatures. But where it lacks in aesthetics, it more than makes up for in flavour. When seasoned with the unagi sauce then grilled over charcoal, the meat is tender and fatty — and the skin is delightfully crisp with just the right amount of char. One of the most popular unagi dishes is unaju, which has sweetened soy sauce (tare) slathered on charcoal-grilled eel and sprinkled with sansho before it is served on top of rice in a traditional Jubako box.
But why settle for just any grilled eel when our inspectors have dined at these specialist restaurants and come up with a list that's worth visiting? Just be sure to make arrangements in advance or risk being edged out by eager diners.
Ishibashi (One MICHELIN Star)
What the MICHELIN Guide Inspectors Say: “The unagi comes from a designated farm in Shizuoka and Kyushu, with the feed, cultivation period, etc. all specified by Ishibashi’s owner. You’re asked to order when you reserve, but cooking only begins when you arrive, so be prepared to wait. The broiled eel, which is free of excess oil, is served on rice in a Wajima lacquered box with a light, slightly tangy sauce to flavour the rice. The pickles, prepared using rice bran in a time-honoured way, are also good.”
Obana (One MICHELIN Star)
What the MICHELIN Guide Inspectors Say: “Lines form before the opening of the restaurant’s hall, which has rows of small dining tables reminiscent of the Showa era. The unagi is prepared once an order is placed and takes at least 40 minutes, so try drinking snacks like koi-no-arai, umaki and uzaku while waiting. The almost melting Shirayaki eel is eaten with soy sauce and wasabi; the unaju is packed tight in the multi-tiered box with just the right amount of sauce soaked into the rice.”
Nodaiwa (One MICHELIN Star)
What the MICHELIN Guide Inspectors Say: “Fifth-generation owner-chef Kanejiro Kanemoto continues his family’s culinary legacy that began in the late Edo period. The Shirayaki here is steamed to remove excess fat, and is so soft that it’s hard to grab. The Kabayaki, which has a light, airy texture, goes well with the rice, and is topped with traditional sauce. He also uses wild-caught unagi depending on the season.”
Hashimoto (Bib Gourmand)
About the Restaurant: Founded in 1835, the restaurant is run by the sixth-generation owner-chef. The unaju consists of tasty, tender steamed unagi on rice, covered evenly in sauce. The recipe for the somewhat salty sauce has been passed down from generation to generation and the owner-chef says he looks for strong tasting unagi that will go well with the sauce. The unaju takes 20 to 30 minutes so enjoy snacks like mukobone and hire while you wait.
Komatsu (Bib Gourmand)
About the Restaurant: This unagi establishment has a storied history. It was first opened by famous Japanese artist Rosanjin Kitaoji but later closed in 1964. In 1979, it was reopened by his grandson who till today, serves the restaurant’s signature unagi in vintage boxes ordered by his grandfather. On the menu is unagi in all its forms — burnished in a brown kake dare sauce, grilled plain shiroyaki-style, rolled in an omelette or grilled parts like fin, kidney and liver on skewers.
Watabe (Bib Gourmand)
About the Restaurant: Watabe adheres to the Kanto-style of preparing unagi, which is being steamed before it is grilled. In order the make the lacquered meat more tender and flavourful, the chef steams the eel over tea leaves for 30 minutes to imbue the meat with a subtle roasty fragrance that enhances the aroma of the eel.
For its specialty Deluxe Eel Box, the broiled eel, which is sourced from Chiba, is dipped in a house-made sauce made with a 60-year-old recipe and served with sancho and pickled vegetables. Look out for other eel-based dishes such as eel and cucumber salad, and crisp eel bone crackers.
Unagi Uomasa (Bib Gourmand)
About the Restaurant: Be prepared to wait for at least 40 minutes as the restaurant fillets and grills the eel over high-grade charcoal upon order. The restaurant’s signature dish is the unaju (grilled eel with rice), which features the specialty Bando Taro, which is premium unagi that is renowned for its high fat content and tenderness. Save space for the Shirayaki eel, which is expertly seasoned in soy sauce and wasabi. The crisp roasted skin of the unagi is known to melt in one’s mouth before one sinks his teeth into the tender meat.
Compiled by Kenneth Goh. Updated 29 Nov 2019.