Monday, December 1, 2014

Nodaiwa in Tokyo for the best grilled eel on the planet.

First, a confession...I love unagi (grilled eel, done Japanese style). It is definitely one of my favourite dishes, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to find great unagi. The great unagi restaurants in Singapore, there was one standout, but they seem to have perished to the grasp of commercial realities.

The reason is the global supply of eel is becoming scarce. Especially the high quality anguila japonica prized in Japan for unagi. As a result, unagi have become more and more expensive. And today it is almost as rare and as expensive to have a unagi meal as it is to have a wagyu steak meal.

I tried one of the oldest eel houses in Japan, Nodaiwa, which was founded in 1850, and still family owned. The main store in Minato-ku, just across the road from the famous Tokyo Tower is a transplanted old storehouse, transplanted from Takayama in the Gifu Prefecture.

Downstairs house the kitchen, and a small dining room, and upstairs some private rooms. The room we had booked had chairs instead of the normal Japanese style tatami floor seating.

As my Japanese friend knows the current owner Kanemoto-san, we managed to score a visit to the kitchen.

And saw how the eel was prepared. We did not manage to see the slaughter of the live eels, but saw how the shirayaki was prepared. The shirayaki is grilled without any sauce. The style of Nodaiwa was the Kanto style, where the unagi is first steamed, then grilled. The other major style is the Kansai style, where the unagi is not steamed but grilled directly. The skin is a bit more chewy, and the unagi is more fatty to the palate.

The eel is first pierced with thin bambo sticks as shown above. Then steamed in a large bamboo basket as seen in the photograph below:

As each order is prepared a la minute, the large steamer only had one order of eel. 

The steaming melts some of the fat, and softens the skin, and the eel is then passed to the master to grill

The hot coals quickly cook the eel, and in the shirayaki style, no sauce is added. In the kabayaki style, the eel is repeatedly dipped into a vat of kabayaki sauce, resulting in a sweetish, sometimes thick coat of sauce. Nodaiwa's unagi kabayaki, however, the sauce is never overpowering. 

Back to the dining room, the first course we were served a grilled unagi in a egg roll

The tamago dashimaki with unagi is painstaking prepared by an unagi specialist. This style of Japanese omelette is made by rolling layers of egg as it is being cooked. The taste was rather fluffy, a nice rounded egg flavour with the mild taste of the grilled unagi within. 

We tried various types of unagi.

First the shirayaki

As mentioned, this was grilled without any sauce. The texture was very tender, soft, but still a bit springy. The eel was not flaky that it fell apart with the probing of the chopsticks, but remained rather elastic. It melted totally in the mouth. On the palate, it was mild, with flavours very subtle, and was a bit dry.

We also had 3 different types of unagi on rice. First unadon, on a bowl of rice

The aromatic sauce provided a sweet, salty punch to the unagi. The sauce, grilled till almost caramalised on the unagi was still quite subtle. Unlike many other lower end unagi stalls that dot the country where the powerful kabayaki sauce tend to overpower the taste of the eel. Here it was light, providing essential support but never taking over the prima donna role left for the unagi to shine. 

The same unagi, but served on a lacquered box is known as unaju. Here is the large was quite big, with approximately 400g of eel on one single layer with hot steaming rice below:

And shine it did. The taste was really tender, soft, with a mild flavour. A slight oily mouthfeel, only the slightest hint of grease, and never too intrusive was prevalent. The meat itself was so soft and tender, but still moist was wonderful. 

The unaju above was served as a double layer. Below the first layer of unagi and rice was another layer of unagi. This provides a slightly different experience as the eel continues to subtly cooked under the rice, flavouring it as one eats. 

Certainly one of the best unagi meals I have had. The flavour and incredible texture of the eel takes center stage. Truly memorable and excellent. And very highly recommended.

Awarded a Michelin star for this outlet in Tokyo, the restaurant also have several other branches in Tokyo and one in Paris.

Many thanks to my friend M. Kondo for booking the dinner and taking us there.

Nodaiwa AZABU

1-5-4, Higashiazabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo 106, Japan
Tél : 03 3583 7852 - Fax : 03 3589 4227 Japanese

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