Serpentine, slimy and coloured an uninspiring grey. The Japanese freshwater eel, or unagi, is hardly the most appealing of sea creatures. But where it lacks for 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.
Getting this perfect combination is an art, so much so that unagi specialist restaurants exist in their own right. While the fish is available year round, the Japanese prefer having this delicacy in summer, specifically on Midsummer's Day, or the Japanese Day of the Ox as it is believed that it helps to ward off the summer heat.
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? In Tokyo alone, there are six such establishments with Michelin stars. Just be sure to make arrangements in advanced or risk being edged out by eager diners.
The unagi comes from a designated farm in Shizuoka, with the feed, cultivation period, etc. all specified by Ishibashi’s owner. Preparation begins only once the customer has arrived so expect something of a wait. The broiled eel, 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. 2-4-29 Suido, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo. www.unagi-ishibashi.com.
Lines form before it opens and the hall with rows of small dining tables is 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 is eaten with soy sauce and wasabi; the unaju is packed tight in the multi-tiered box with just the right amount of sauce soaking into the rice. 5-33-1 Minamisenju, Arakawa-ku, Tokyo.
This restaurant specialises in unagi set meals. They begin with ‘Umaki’ featuring unagi wrapped in dashi-flavoured egg, ‘Kimoyaki’ that includes hire on the skewer, and ‘Shirayaki’; and end with either fragrant ‘Hitsumabushi’ or tender ‘Unadon’. Whether the flesh is steamed or not is determined by the texture, but more emphasis is placed on taste than tenderness. Enjoy your fill of unagi along with ingredients like uzaku and sashimi. 9-1-7 Akasaka, Minato-ku.
5th-generation owner-chef Kanejiro Kanemoto keeps alive a family tradition – he is a chef who was born to grill unagi and has dedicated his life to it. The unaju comes with so much kabayaki that it completely covers the rice. Wild-caught unagi is also available depending on the season. The shirayaki, the steamed unagi with its excess fat removed, is normally eaten with wasabi and rock salt, but try it. 1-5-4 Higashiazabu, Minato-ku.
Founded in 1835, the restaurant is run by the 6th 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 20-30 minutes so enjoy snacks like mukobone and hire while you wait. 2-5-7 Suido, Bunkyo-ku. www.unagi-hashimoto.jp
An unagi restaurant in the grounds of Sanno Hie Shrine; the entrance is opposite the rear gate of Hibiya High School. Kabayaki is the speciality: unagi from areas such as Shizuoka and Kagoshima are broiled without seasoning, steamed slowly, then broiled over bincho charcoal with a sweet sauce. We recommend horigotatsu-style sunken seating in the annexe. Prices are high but lunch and Saturday evening menus are more reasonable. 2-10-6 Nagatacho, Chiyoda-ku.
Jazz and rock music play in the background, giving the restaurant a different atmosphere from a regular unagi restaurant. The owner-chef pairs sake with unagi, choosing a different warmed sake depending on the dish, whether it be a broiled unseasoned fillet, liver or a hire. The main offering is unagi on rice freshly cooked in an earthenware pot. The sign is inconspicuous, so look for the small curtain-sign and candles. 2F, 1-9-11 Higashiyama, Meguro-ku. ryo-eel-sake.therestaurant.jp