Who says you have to wait till the dog days of midsummer to enjoy unagi? Ignore the media hype: There are no rules that say when you should (or should not) eat your eel. But if you are only going to dine on unagi once a year, then make it somewhere special. And you will not find anywhere in Tokyo that does it better than Nodaiwa — after all, they’ve been in the business for over 160 years now.
Nodaiwa’s handsome premises are worth a visit at any time of year. The core of the restaurant is a sturdy country kura (storehouse) transported down from Takayama many years ago. You will be greeted by smiling matrons dressed in kimono. Unless you notify them differently, they will assume that you want to sit at one of the small tables in the ground-floor dining room, a cozy space with plush upholstery offering glimpses of the broiling process in the kitchen. But if you are lucky, you may be ushered up the polished wood staircase to one of the upper floors.
These are mainly occupied by private rooms reserved for parties of four or more. But there is one room on the third floor that is set aside for drop-in customers, where you sit at low tables under the wooden beams of the kura roof. The tatami is new and the walls freshly painted, but in every other respect it feels as if nothing has changed for half a century. This is the place to be if you intend to settle in for a leisurely lunch or dinner, especially if you order one of the full-course set meals.
But Nodaiwa has earned its laurels for its food, not its stately appearance and retro-Showa atmosphere. It’s not just a question of kitchen technique and tradition — though the present master is the fifth generation of the Kanemoto family to ply the trade of eel-meister. What makes Nodaiwa special is that (as long as supplies permit) they make a point of serving only natural unagi caught in the wild, not the cultured fish raised on factory farms.
The difference is as great as between a flabby broiler and a full-flavored free-range jidori chicken. And this is best appreciated by ordering the preparation known as shirayaki — the centerpiece of Nodaiwa’s repertoire, its piece de resistance.
The eel arrives in a gleaming silver metal box that contains just enough hot water to keep it warm until you have finished. It has been cut into strips lengthwise (as always), slowly steamed, then gently grilled and finally served au naturel, with none of the usual basting sauce. Lightly crisped on the outside, delicately rare inside, this is unagi at its unadorned best.
First taste it naked, just the way it is, the soft white flesh a little bland but subtly sweet too. Next add a dab of grated wasabi root and dip it lightly into the saucer of shoyu with which it is served. But the crowning glory of this dish is something that you will find nowhere else but at Nodaiwa: caviar.
You pile a generous mound of the salty black jewels onto the white fish and savor the extraordinary combination as it explodes in your mouth. Your pleasure will be in no way diminished to note that the small 30-gram jars here contain not prime Caspian beluga but a rather more affordable Chinese roe.
For such a luxury, beer and sake are clearly too plebeian. That’s why Nodaiwa keeps a couple of simple white wines on ice. We have found the sharp clarity of Pouilly-Fume works admirably in this situation, though Chablis is also another fine option.
Although caviar is only included in Nodaiwa’s top-of-the-range 13,000 yen course (it can also be ordered as an optional extra), there is plenty more to a full-scale unagi banquet at Nodaiwa. To open the meal, you will be brought a succession of small tidbits such as nikogori (broiled eel set in a cube of its own jelly) and kanten, a light, refreshing agar aspic, which at this time of year is likely to feature ama-ebi shrimp and junsai water weed.
There is kimoyaki — skewers of grilled eel liver, intense bitter morsels that are said to do wonders for your eyesight — and also unagi tsukudani, eel that has been cooked down in sweetened shoyu so long and slowly it is almost black. These are savory morsels that prime the appetite and help those first few sips of sake go down.
Then, after the shirayaki, the chawanmushi arrives. The thick, savory custard is piping hot and far less sweet than is common in Kyoto-style cooking. Buried within the dark-yellow egg, you find slivers of eel (of course), shiitake mushrooms and a small mouthful of crunchy yet gelatinous shark’s fin.
The apex of the meal is kabayaki, the classic preparation of broiled unagi served solo with rice on the side; or unaju, the same served on a bed of rice in a black lacquered bento box. In either case you will find the eel has been grilled to an appetizing shade of golden brown and moistened with just enough tare sauce to impart savor but without overwhelming the natural flavor of the fish.
This is exceptionally rich, gourmet fare. But balance is provided in the form of a large mound of grated daikon; a substantial portion of pickles; and a clear soup (kimosui), featuring fragrant mitsuba leaf and more eel liver. The meal ends with fruit and tea.
Such a formidable repast is best attempted only in the evening. For a more modest introduction to Nodaiwa, you can drop in for a simple (and much quicker) meal in the downstairs dining room. With unaju courses starting at 2,000 yen and shirayaki at 2,300 yen, there is no reason to try unagi anywhere else in town.