THE KEY TO QUALITY UNAGI LIES IN THE FINE DETAILS. So says Sei Akimoto, owner of the 110-year-old broiled eel restaurant, Unagi Akimoto.
A short walk from Kojimachi Station in central Tokyo, Unagi Akimoto is a small, unpretentious shop that looks like a tea ceremony house from the outside. As you slip through its sliding doors, you feel as though you are passing through time.
“The base of what we do has remained the same for the past century,” says Akimoto.
Summer Plates For All Seasons
Unagi Akimoto started as a takeaway store with one private room in 1909. Serving kabayaki — freshwater eel grilled over hot charcoal — has made it extremely popular with locals and it became a full-scale restaurant half a century later.
Today, the menu is still dominated by unagi. According to Akimoto, the most popular dishes are the eel rice bowl (unadon), eel served over rice in a lacquered box (unaju), and the grilled eel without seasoning. Unagi is a traditional seasonal food, and these plates are especially popular in the summer.
“From the cut of the fish to the way it’s skewered and grilled, everything has to be just right. We have a tank of live eels in the kitchen, so our dishes are always fresh. But that isn’t enough. Meticulous preparation is required otherwise it will end up looking and tasting bad,” says the fourth-generation chef.
It’s this attention to the smallest details that has ensured that the establishment has thrived, surrounding restaurants have come and gone. Akimoto, who first worked in the hospitality field, believes the company’s success lies in the fact that it has been faithful to its origins while also embracing change, tweaking things imperceptibly to suit modern tastes.
“People who come here know what to expect, but that doesn’t mean you don’t keep developing,” says Akimoto. “Unless you utilise modern technology, adapt your sauces, and make those small but necessary alterations, you’ll be left behind”
The Hot Commodity Of Eel
In recent years, plummeting eel populations have forced many unagi restaurants to close. In 2013, the Japanese Ministry of the Environment added Anguilla japonica (Japanese eel) to its official red list of endangered fish.
“Prices have skyrocketed which has made things difficult,” admits Akimoto. But he will soldier on.
“Lots of regulars got used to the taste when they were young and found they couldn’t eat (eel) anywhere else. So, there’s also an appreciation for the traditional style of the restaurant,” he says.