Restaurant Report: Unagi Kabuto in Tokyo
By EDWARD SCHNEIDER
Published: January 1, 2013
For the culinary-minded traveler, any visit to Tokyo should include a dinner of unagi — tender, unctuous grilled freshwater eel. There are genteel eel specialists, like the memorable Yama-no Chaya, which opened in the early 20th century on the leafy grounds of Hie-Jinja Shrine. By contrast, there’s Unagi Kabuto, at 35 a relative newcomer: a friendly, charcoal-smoke-scented storefront in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro neighborhood, whose lively streets are peopled more by touts in skinny suits than by elegant women in kimonos.
Two decades ago at Yama-no Chaya, my wife and I had our very own tatami room. At Kabuto, we shimmied onto two of the 11 chairs at the counter, the pair at the end, with no space for our knees (the others are somewhat roomier). There are also two small tables, but that counter is the place to be: you’ll want to watch the chef and owner, Kazuo Iwai, haul live eels out of a basin, spike them to his cutting board and speedily fillet them just before skewering and grilling. He’s mesmerizingly deft.
Dinner started with a salted cabbage appetizer, then kushiyaki hitotoori, a sequence of skewered grilled eel parts, including delicate silky-textured livers and lightly crunchy heads. At some point each customer was offered the minuscule still-beating heart of a just-dispatched eel, perhaps as a good-natured challenge. Even following instructions and not chewing, and even with a quick beer chaser, these left a bitter taste in the mouth. But for the intrepid eater, it was a challenge not to be declined.
The main course options include the familiar sweet-savory glazed eel (okabayaki) and something you don’t see as often: unglazed eel (shirayaki), simply grilled over charcoal and served with salt on the side. Each is offered in small, medium and large portions (medium — toku — was just right). The grilling is done with keen attention, and the result is as impeccable as the surroundings are informal; the shirayaki, in particular, was a revelation in its clarity of flavor. Rice, homemade pickles and a clear soup with eel liver end the meal.
If you don’t speak Japanese, you’ll need help making a reservation. We did it through our hotel, the Park Hyatt, whose concierge also printed out a local map and previewed the menu. But once you’re there, the welcome is warm; one staff member speaks some English, and the goal is to make sure that everyone has a good time. We certainly did.
Unagi Kabuto, 2-53-2 Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku, Tokyo; (81-3) 3983-8608. Dinner for two without drinks (tipping is not customary) is 9,500 yen, or $115, at 83 yen to the dollar. Cash only.