Thursday, May 1, 2008

A conga line of anago

“A Taste of Tokyo” blared the Life! cover story headline of Tuesday’s The Straits Times. Yes, I am in Singapore, which has greeted me with the nastiest stomach flu bug I’ve encountered in a long time. I’d post a link to the article, except that ST has the pre-historic policy of charging for content. Even the NYT has abandoned asking for money to read its columnists, and while Maureen Dowd is worth paying for, the same cannot be said for ST. Anyway, here are the pages…

… that reminded me of the wonderful meals J and I had in Tokyo and Kyoto, which included sublime sushi and hearty monkfish nabe. Another memorable restaurant was Ginza’s Hakarime, which specialises in anago, or conger eel. J had been gripped by anago fever ever since reading this NYT article, and mentioned more than once that this was on her must-eat list. So, on a slightly drizzly Tuesday evening, after again walking around the block trying to find the address, we found our way going up a lift of a small building.

Hakarime is a long and narrow restaurant dominated by an impressive counter (pix below, copied shamelessly from their website).

Opposite the counter is a series of tiny rooms, many big enough only for two (seating for bigger parties are scattered over other parts of the restaurant). J and I got one of these cosy little spaces that were screened off, affording us a little privacy, yet placing us close to the action.

As usual, we were slightly overawed by the menu, and took the easy way out by ordering the omakase (chef’s choice) set. We were not disappointed.

First up were the trio of appetizers (below) – Hotaruika no sumi-tsukuri (top left), salted and fermented firefly squid and intestines with sepia (squid ink); sutamina nattou (foreground), which is natto mixed round with okra, yam and takuan (yellow pickled radish); and a pickled vegetable. The squid/intestines dish is yummier than it looks (trust me) and the fermented natto had just the right piquancy to open up one’s appetite.

By the way, we ordered a junmai-shu sake, Sougen, that was light, fragrant and medium dry, and the perfect companion for the meal.

Next up was conger eel sashimi dressed with shuto, which is salted and fermented bonito and entrails.

This was followed by the last ‘appetizer’, konjac, made from the starch of devil’s tongue, here dressed in egg yolk and mustard sauce. The smooth, jelly-like texture would be familiar to those who grew up with Chinese custardy type desserts!

A quartet of anago sashimi marked the start of the serious business at hand. . Like unagi, anago is popularly eaten grilled, with a sauce painted on it, and compared to unagi, it is milder and less oily in texture. This is not to say that anago sashimi is wimpy – when you bite into the slightly chewy slices, a mild and pleasant sweetness is released. This quartet was made up of standard sashimi, sashimi immersed briefly in boiling water, sashimi lightly roasted, and sashimi sliced so thinly (see the top of the picture) and so translucently, that it melts into the white plate! You can barely see it.

The best of the lot was without doubt the slightly roasted version. The sashimi was scored in such a way that only tips of certain parts of the cut was slightly blackened, leaving the rest of the sashimi raw. Grilling releases more flavours, and when the piece is put into one’s mouth, you can taste the roasty sweet portions melding with the fresh raw bits. Ummm, very good.

This was followed by a conger eel salad dressed with kombu (edible kelp) and Balsamic vinegar, refreshing because of the absence of the dreaded mayonnaise that seems to dominate most Japanese salads.

My first introduction to eel cooked Japanese style was the trusty ol’ broiled unagi, slathered with a rich dark sauce, in a bento box. I remember the unagi to be firm and the sauce sweet and delicious, if a little heavy. Having unagi (in Kyoto) and anago in Hakarime was a revelation, for the eel we ate was not firm, but soft, tender and delicious. We found that the better the sauce, the more likely it was used with restraint.

As you can tell from the picture above, Hakarime’s sauce is almost coyly applied, and why not? Why spoil a fresh ingredient that has been lightly cooked in respect to its natural flavours? The julienned cucumbers were a nice touch!

We also had the anago shabu (with mushrooms, tofu and herbs, above) taking care not to overboil the eel in the kelp flavoured broth (below). Again, light and a mild sweetness were the taste memories that come to mind.

And lastly, we were served the anago tempura, by which time we were frankly approaching full fullness, so we were glad for the restrained portions, the judicious use of batter and the expert frying (little residual oil).

Were we anago-ed out? Not at all. The meal was nicely paced; we had an early reservation, 5.30 pm I believe, and we finished sometime past 8. Our waitress was friendly and obliging, taking care to explain each course in detail. Our own little room was perfect – at once semi-secluded (you could peek into the other enclosures by your side) yet close to the counter action (the bustling sounds of the chefs at work and in conversation were a welcome background music). But the reason to go is to have a wonderful ingredient prepared in interesting ways with care and respect.

Check out the website for the address and full menu.


Jen L. said...

So what I loved about anago? When raw, it's delicately chewy; but when cooked, flaky and melt-in-your-mouth. (When done both ways at once? A revelation.) It's truly unagi's delicate cousin.

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