Already checked all the sushi and ramen boxes on your Japanese food pilgrimage list? Then come along with us to the country’s favorite unagi specialist, located in downtown Tokyo.
Japan is a nation of unabashed foodies, and their biggest online gathering place is the website Tabelog, which compiles information about eateries across Japan, bolstered by user-submitted reviews and photos. If you’ve ever watched a Japanese TV talk show in which the hosts go into cries of ecstasy at the first bite of anything they eat, you might expect every restaurant on Tabelog to receive full marks, but the website’s users are actually fairly strict in their rankings, which range from one to five.
In general, you can expect any restaurant with a rating above a four to deliver a satisfying meal to fans of that genre. Speaking of which, Tabelog lets you filter searches down to the specific type of food the restaurant specializes in, and if you’re looking for unagi (freshwater eel), you won’t find a higher-ranked place than Kabuto, located in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro neighborhood.
Actually, you won’t find many places with a higher ranking than Kabuto even if you expand your search to restaurants of any type, as Kabuto’s 4.36 average user rating makes it one of the top 50 restaurants in Japan. Such renown has made it so popular that there’s a six-month backlog for reservations. Oh, and that’s for weekdays. If you want to go on a Saturday (the restaurant is closed Sundays and Thursdays), you’ll need to make your reservation eight months ahead of time.
Our Japanese-language correspondent P.K. lucked out, though, when a friend who’d had the foresight to make a reservation half a year ago ended up with an extra space in his party and asked our reporter to go along with him. But while P.K.’s mouth started watering just at the thought of a visit to Kabuto, he also felt a chill run down his spine.
Unagi might not have quite the rarified cachet of fine sushi, but it’s still a delicacy with a decidedly old school vibe, and some respected unagi chefs are revered like artisans. Due to its fame, Kabuto’s chef has been featured in a handful of magazine articles and TV segments, and let’s just say that when it comes to food, he’s a very…opinionated guy.
As fate would have it, P.K. was seated right by the chef, who explained each dish as he prepared it. He also told P.K.:
“All of the unagi you’ve eaten until now at other restaurants is shit!”
“Why did you eat that kind of unagi? It must be because you’re dumb.”
“I don’t mind if you take pictures, but make sure you eat your food while it’s hot. If you’re going to just keeping snapping pictures while it gets cold, then please go home.”
▼ P.K. was feeling as much heat as the unagi on the grill.
But this free side order of grumpy old unagi chef wisdom didn’t do anything to diminish the deliciousness of the food itself.
Similar to yakitori (grilled chicken skewers), unagi can be seasoned with either salt or a glaze. The full-course meal P.K. ordered allowed him to try both, and they were so delicious P.K. felt like he was tasting the full potential of unagi for the first time.
Given the animal’s serpentine appearance, you might not think there’s much variety in unagi cuisine, but Kabuto’s chef proves otherwise, with a wide variety of skewers in addition to the butterflied central cuts seen above. Some of the best were:
▼ Unagi belly
▼ Collar with salt
As tasty as everything was, the absolute best, in P.K.’s opinion, was the liver, which didn’t have any of the astringent qualities often associated with the cut.
As the meal went on, P.K. found that beneath his gruff exterior, Kabuto’s chef really isn’t such a bad guy after all, and not just because of his superb culinary skills. Whenever P.K. asked a question about a particular dish or unagi in general, the chef gave him a thorough but easy-to-understand answer. We’re not sure, though, why he also decided to give P.K. the nickname “Tomorokoshi” (literally “corn”).
We mentioned before that Japan is a nation of gourmands, and that passion for fine dining means that customers are willing to pay for quality. But compared to restaurants with a comparably exalted reputation, Kabuto is surprisingly reasonable, as P.K.’s full-course meal, which included several more cuts of unagi other than the ones seen here, side orders, and alcoholic beverages, cost him just a little more than 10,000 yen (US$89) (and it was certainly more elegant than some of his other 10,000–yen meals).
Sadly, Kabuto’s chef says he’ll be retiring at the end of the month, and turning the cooking over to his successor. Given his unwavering attitude about what the right way to cook unagi, though, we suspect he’s chosen someone who can keep his traditions, and flavors, going strong.
Kabuto / かぶと
Address: Tokyo-to, Toshima-ku, Ikebukuro 2-53-2
Open 5 p.m.-10 p.m.
Closed Sundays, Thursdays, and holidays
[ Read in Japanese ]