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Friday, July 18, 2008

TOKYO FOOD FILE

Tradition beats the summer heat


Squeezed in between towering modern neighbors, Akimoto's traditional low-rise architecture is so self-effacing you barely notice it. From the tiled eaves to the wood-slatted second-floor windows and the sliding door set back from the street, all is inscrutable.

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U is for Unagi: Akimoto's sign (above) promises eel cuisine with a 100-year history; Chikuyotei offers refinement and tradition. ROBBIE SWINNERTON PHOTOS
News photo

The only modern addition to the exterior is the steel-framed sign hanging above the sidewalk, illuminating a simple brush stroke inside a stylized gourd. Any student of Japanese will recognize the phonetic hiragana character for "u"; any connoisseur of Japanese cuisine will know that it is the first syllable of unagi (eel), Akimoto's specialty for over a century now.

They will also be well aware that this is the peak season for dining on this plebeian delicacy. Freshwater eel, especially when broiled in the savory kabayaki style, is credited with the marvelous ability to provide energy in face of the debilitating heat of midsummer. And that it is particularly efficacious (or so it is claimed) when consumed on the Day of the Ox in the sweltering dog days of summer known as the doyo period.

Adding a further speculative wrinkle to that gnarled mythology, the Food File would suggest that those restorative qualities are even more impressive when the eel in question is consumed in a setting that is suitably traditional. The surrounding neighborhood may have changed, but Akimoto is just what the doctor ordered.

Slide open the door and you will be greeted by a matron in kimono, who will direct you to a table in the modest dining room, or, should they all be taken, to a bench in the interior corridor leading back toward the kitchen where you can wait your turn. Akimoto is worth the wait.

The slope of the ceiling timbers and the bamboo slats that cover the lower half of the mud-washed walls are almost worthy of a tea cottage, although the unkempt patch of greenery in the pocket handkerchief-size inner garden feels very un-Zenlike in its neglect.

The menu is every bit as traditional as the decor. If broiled eel is not what you're after, then you are most definitely in the wrong place. As is standard practice, it is served either in a two-tiered lacquer container with the rice separate (ask for kabayaki); laid on top of the rice in a rectangular box (unaju); or on rice in a wide bowl (unadon). Since it is prepared to order, a process that can take as much as 10 minutes, either settle in with a book, admire the surroundings or order up a drink and a couple of starters to tide you over.

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Grillin': Unagi shirayaki at Akimoto

The beer (Kirin Gold or old-school Kirin Lager) is kept chilled in a large tank of ice water. The sake is a very ordinary brew (Sawanotsuru honjozo) in the kind of miniatures often stocked at provincial station kiosks. The shochu selection is similarly basic. And don't even think about asking for wine.

If you want to be fancy, sashimi is available. But most people order the standard unagiya appetizers. There is yahata-maki, lengths of burdock wrapped in strips of cooked eel, a wonderful juxtaposition of textures melded together with a savory seasoning that primes the appetite and goes perfectly with that first beer. There is umaki, soft-cooked eel wrapped inside a roll of sweet, fluffy tamago-yaki omelet. And best of all at this time of year is the delicate and colorful usaku, a salad of yellow chrysanthemum petals, pink myoga ginger and baby cucumber sliced impossibly thin, anointed with a refreshing rice-vinegar-based dressing, topped with a few slices of broiled eel.

By now your unagi will have arrived. Like everything else here, it is simple and just as good as you would expect. The melting-soft texture of the fish is basted with a rich, savory tare sauce that oozes into the rice. Akimoto offers eel of three different grades — and, as so often in this city, it's worth paying the extra.

A dash of color and texture is provided by the small saucer of pickles. Also included is a small bowl of clear soup (kimosui), at the bottom of which lurk eel livers, whose vitamin D content is reputed to be good for the eyesight.

This is classic unagi, the way it has been served and eaten for a century or more, except in one respect: Akimoto broils over gas rather than charcoal. It's a small distinction, but one that is important to the gourmets of this city. And that is why Akimoto has retained its sense of being a neighborhood eatery and never become the focus of any cult of celebrity. Long may it stay that way.

This year, unusually, the Day of the Ox occurs twice in the specified doyo season, which means that Unagi Day will be celebrated twice: on July 24 and again on Aug. 5. Expect long lines at Akimoto. In anticipation of demand, Akimoto will also be open on Aug. 10, when, as the second Saturday of the month, the shop would normally be closed.


Unagi with the stars in Tokyo's Ginza

Can broiled eel ever be a gourmet experience? The Michelin Guide believes it is possible and backed its judgment by awarding one of its coveted stars to our most prestigious unagi house, Chikuyotei.

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Chill out: Chikuyotei's set meal

Founded in 1870, not long after the city's name changed from Edo to Tokyo, Chikuyotei started life as a lowly roadside eatery dispensing sake and eel. Now it is a considerable chain with branches across Japan and even abroad. Tradition still rules firmly, and nowhere more so than at the honten (flagship) restaurant, an imposing wooden structure that has stood proudly on the Tsukiji side of Ginza ever since the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. The shop draws a well-heeled clientele, from upper echelon executives in the nearby office blocks to coiffured ladies on outings to Shinbashi Enbujo Theater, just a short stroll away.

Chikuyotei's menu of appetizers is virtually identical to Akimoto's: sashimi, usaku, umaki and that favorite of unagi connoisseurs, shirayaki, eel that is broiled until slightly browned, but in place of savory tare sauce it is served with plain shoyu and a dab of wasabi, as if it were sashimi.

Although it is not prepared over charcoal, the eel is of top quality ("as near as possible in flavor to wild unagi" is their boast), especially served as their classic unagi donburi (from ¥2,100).

But it is Chikuyotei's multicourse kaiseki meals that won the plaudits of the Michelin inspectors. Served in the tatami rooms on the second floor (from ¥7,350 at lunch, and ¥12,600 at dinner), they feature unagi in its multifold guises.

Not having sufficient time to linger at lunch the other day, we compromised by ordering the teishoku set meal (¥4,200) and eating downstairs. This opened with a starter of seasonal vegetables in a lightly vinegared aemono dressing, to perk up the taste buds. Next came the main course: kabayaki, broiled eel served with the rice separately, and a small bowl of wonderfully fragrant kimosui soup. To round it all off, we were proffered large slices of chilled watermelon (with salt on the side, naturally). From start to finish, everything was perfect.

As the only unagi restaurant with a star to its name, is Chikuyotei the best in the world? In our book, it's not even top-five in Tokyo. But in terms of refinement and style, it ranks high on our list of places for entertaining guests or showing visitors to Japan just what a wonderful (yes, and revivifying) dish eel can be. (Robbie Swinnerton)

Chikuyotei is at 8-14-7 Ginza, Chuo-ku; the nearest stations are Shiodome (Oedo Line) and Higashi-Ginza (Hibiya and Asakusa lines); open 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 4:30-8 p.m. (closed Sun. and holidays); (03) 3542-0789; www.unagi-chikuyoutei.co.jp



Unagi Akimoto

MAP
Location: 3-4-4 Kojimachi, Chiyoda-ku
(03) 3261-6762
r.gnavi.co.jp/p876100/

Open: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; 5 p.m.-8 p.m. (last order; closed Sun., holidays and 2nd Sat. of the month)

Nearest station: Kojimachi (Yurakucho Line)

How to get there: Leave Kojimachi Station Exit 3 and turn right in the direction of Ichigaya. Akimoto is on the right after 40 meters.

What works: Quality broiled eel in a classic traditional setting

Number of seats: Main dining room 26 (plus tatami rooms upstairs for 34)

Smoking: All no-smoking

Price per head: Figure around ¥4,000 plus drinks; 10 percent service charge

Drinks: Beer ¥750; sake from ¥750/glass, ¥5,250/bottle; shochu from ¥650/glass, ¥5,250/bottle

Credit cards: Major cards accepted

Language: Japanese menu; English not spoken

Reservations: Only taken for groups in the tatami rooms



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