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Thursday, July 27, 2000
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Heat got you down? Eel thyself
Obana is certainly not the most illustrious of Tokyo's unagi restaurants. How could it be when most of the flash money lies west of the Ginza, not up in blue-collar Arakawa-ku? But there are plenty of people, especially those of humbler birth, who will go to the grave swearing by the name of their ancestors that nowhere in the city prepares broiled eel better than this.
As with all the best things in life, a meal at Obana requires time -- plus a certain sense of adventure. Unless you live to the northeast of Ueno, you will first have to budget in the half hour it takes by train (or subway) out to Minami-Senju, where the JR station is so quaint you could be out in rural Ibaraki-ken.
Then, once you get there, you should be prepared to take your place in line. Obana is surprisingly overlooked by the media but not by the local populace, which descends in droves by car, bike or foot, especially at weekends and on holidays. Those in the know bring books to occupy themselves; others just huddle in the shade, fanning themselves and admiring the restaurant's handsome exterior, recently rebuilt but along traditional lines, complete with gateway, shrine and pebbled courtyard.
When at last you are summoned to table, you will be ushered past the linen noren, pausing only to remove your footwear before stepping onto the tatami of the simple, unadorned dining area. The atmosphere is pure shitamachi. Apart from one private room for parties, everyone eats in the same spacious L-shaped room, sitting on zabuton cushions at small square wooden tables set in long lines.
Family groups with kids in shorts; younger couples in casual attire; grizzled artisans with haramaki exposed; middle-aged women in the kind of fashions sanctioned by the Imperial Household Agency. All are on the same level, rubbing shoulders with their neighbors and enjoying the quiet conviviality of this egalitarian arrangement.
But even at this stage, you will need to keep your appetite at bay for a further half hour. Not only does Obana specialize in tennen unagi (eels caught from the wild, not reared in fish farms), they are all kept alive until the moment your order comes in. Only then are they nailed down, slit open, skewered, broiled, steamed then broiled again. The superiority of flavor is worth every minute of the extra wait.
Fortunately, Obana offers a good selection of snacks that help to while away the time. At this time of year, there are fresh eda-mame beans, bright green in their pods, still hot from the pan and well salted to go with that first beer. They also have good yakitori (though you are limited to just two sticks per person). If you prefer sashimi, the only selection is koi arai, thin slices of freshwater carp with an earthy taste best complemented by the simple glow of the rough atsukan sake.
Two more suggestions as great starters: uzaku, squares of grilled eel served in an appetizing ponzu vinaigrette with sliced cucumber and yellow chrysanthemum petals; and umaki, thick rolls of savory Japanese omelet, warm and only slightly sweetened, stuffed with chopped, soft-cooked eel. Deep in flavor, delicate in texture, both of these are dishes worthy of restaurants at addresses far ritzier than this.
Finally, your unagi is delivered to your table. If you have had your wits about you, you will have ordered the shirayaki, since this is always the piece de resistance of any unagi chef worth his salt. The eel is so lightly grilled it is barely browned, the flesh still exhibiting a light pinkish hue. It is served not with the usual daubings of tare sauce but merely with a dab of wasabi and a light soy-based dip.
There is no better way to understand the difference between real eel and the flabby fillets they sell in supermarkets. Natural unagi has a texture that is pronounced but still smooth as kimono silk. It also has surprising flavor, full yet subtle, leaving no doubt on your tongue that you are eating a fish, not some processed simulacrum.
Shirayaki is light but satisfying, and may well be sufficient on its own for appetites reduced by the summer heat. But most people find it works best as a starter, opening up the appetite for more substantial fare. The alternatives now are either kabayaki (grilled, seasoned eel served on its own) with a side order of rice; or unaju (grilled and served on rice). Both are available in three different sizes, but only the most ravenous will have the stomach space for more than the middle option.
But perhaps you have sated yourself on all those eel-based appetizers. In that case, you will probably have ordered the one main dish on the menu that does not feature unagi -- kiji-don. It is a compact rectangular red lacquer bento-bako box, containing a layer of rice, scattered with fine-cut nori seaweed and topped with a light scrambled egg and succulent cuts of charcoal-grilled pheasant. The sweetness of the egg is balanced by the savory tang of the meat (which, like the unagi, is grilled over premium Bincho charcoal).
Dessert is not offered, and such is the popularity of Obana that you are likely to be encouraged to leave your seat as soon as you have finished eating. But, if you do feel like lingering a while longer, you may like to cool off your taste buds with a small jar of to ketsu-shu, a special summer ice granita made from frozen shibori-tate sake that is briskly mashed up to form the ultimate kaki-gori frappe for adults.
To enjoy Obana at its best, however, you would be well advised to postpone your visit until after this coming Saturday (July 30). According to the ancient calendar, this is the Day of the Ox, the one day of the year on which tradition, superstition and the unremitting infatuation of the media insist that eel must be eaten to impart the strength needed to see us through the summer.
Suffice it to say that meals at any eel restaurant -- let alone one with such a reputation -- are more comfortable after the annual feeding frenzy has peaked. Moreover, at this time of year, demand is so high that even Obana is forced to supplement its supplies of wild unagi with farmed eels from Hamanako. And no matter how nicely you ask, the overworked but ever-courteous waitresses there will never let you know which you are getting.