Unagi, or fresh water eel, is one of my favourite summer delicacies in Japan. Eating unagi during the hot summer season has been a tradition since the Edo period in early 19th century. Because of the high protein and vitamin content of unagi, the Japanese believe that consuming unagi during summer can help restore energy and stamina to survive the heat.
Although unagi is eaten all-year-round, summer is the peak season which is also the only season wild unagi is served. According to the traditional Japanese calendar, there is one day in particular each year designated as the biggest unagi-eating day, which falls on the Midsummer Day of the Ox – the hottest day of the year.
Unagi can be found at most Japanese restaurants especially during summer. If you’re in search for the highest quality wild unagi, unagi specialty restaurants are the best choices.
Unagi is prepared in different ways in Kanto (Tokyo, Yokohama,etc) and Kansai (Osaka, Kyoto,etc). Before cooking unagi, it is slit open, the head, bones as well as organs are removed. In the Kansai area, unagi is cut open along the stomach, then the filleted eel is skewered and grilled. While in Kanto, it is cut open along the spine. The meat is steamed prior to grilling to give it an extra fluffy texture.
Specializing in Edo-mae (Tokyo style) unagi, Ishibashi is a famous unagi restaurant that has been selling unagi since Meiji 43 (1910). Due to the Doolittle Raid in 1942, the original location of Ishibashi in Kandakawa was destroyed. The current location was rebuilt after the war, using red brick fence from pre-war period to highlight its long history.
Ishibashi is open for lunch and dinner from Tuesday to Saturday. The full course menu is ONLY available for dinner at JPY 13000 and JPY15000, a shorter course menu priced at JPY 10000 is served during lunch (by pre-ordering). Everyone’s favorite Unagyu (grilled unagi over rice) can be found on the a-la-carte menu as well as few other unagi dishes. Prices range from 3800 to 5000 yen depending on the portion and quality of the unagi.
Reservations are not required but I strongly recommend you to book early due to limited supply, especially in summer. I planned 1.5 month in advance reserving a private tatami room for my party of three over the telephone. We visited Ishibashi during lunch and pre-ordered the lunch course when the reservation was made.
ざる豆腐 / Zaru Tofu
Our course included two appetizers, unagi chawanmushi (steamed egg custard), Shiroyaki (unseasoned grilled unagi), Unajyu (grilled glazed unagi over rice) and a dessert.
Zaru Tofu, a kind of homemade beancurd normally made and served cold in a bamboo kit. The tofu was creamy and packed with soy flavors and a sweet hint, accompanied by scallions, wasabi and soy sauce to lift its natural tastes. Continued with a delicacy platter.
突出し / Assorted Delicacies
鰻茶碗蒸し / Unagi Chawanmushi
The first unagi dish featured a Chawanmushi with unagi and assorted seafood. The silky egg custard was infused with unami flavors and the delicious oils of the eel.
鰻骨煎餅 / Unagi Bones
白焼き / Shiro-yaki
Only the best unagi from Shizuoka in Kyushu is used at Ishibashi. Here, unagi is prepared in the traditional Edo-mae method which includes opening the eel, skewering, pounding, steaming for an hour before being Kabayaki-ed.
We had the unseasoned (during cooking) grilled unagi – Shiroyaki. It arrived in a very traditional exquisite ‘jubako’ lacquer box. Topped with a pinch of salt before serving along with sides of wasabi and soy sauce. The lovely grilled aroma beckoned me upon removing the cover of the jubako. Personally I believe nothing beats Shiroyaki to enjoy the purest expression of unagi. The flesh was fluffy and creamy. Its extraordinary natural fat with a mild sweet taste was truly memorable.
うな重（香物・肝吸い付き）/ Una-jyu, served with pickles and liver soup
Next was the rice dish – Una-jyu, the most popular unagi dish on the planet. It comes with pickles and a clear soup of unagi liver.
肝吸い / Unagi liver soup
香物 / Pickles
うな重 / Unajyu
Typically unajyu is glazed with tare sauce, a kind of sweet soy sauce commonly used for unagi. It is delicious but tricky to add the right proportion. Surprisingly, the sauce was not too heavy or thick compared to some other unagi places I had been to. The fish itself was no doubt rich in fat being in-season, the texture of rice was on point, each bite was so enjoyable especially with its best friend – sansho pepper. Such an excellent summer treat.
Sansho powder on the side
デザート / Dessert
Lastly, we had Japanese melon and Kyoho grapes to end the meal.
In short, the unagi at Ishibashi was certainly of the highest-quality, the servers were patient and friendly, providing efficient service in a traditional zen ambiance. It was a beautiful unagi experience and will be fondly remembered.
Address: 2-4-29 Suido, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo, Japan 112-0005
Hours: Tue-Sat 11:30–14:30, 18:00–21:00