Monday, August 3, 2009

Kametomi, Kanda (亀とみ)

Eel in the sky keeps on turning
I don't know where I'll be tomorrow
- Fleishman, Schon, Valery

The Kanda Eel Showdown kicks off today with a pleasant, middle-of-the-road choice. Were I to be a completist about lunch destinations (heavens!), I'd point out that this place occupies a little sliver of real estate right between Sunaba and Jirokichi, meaning that particular side of that particular street is basically played out. Fortunately there's still eel across the street, and pizza around the corner.

The nostalgist in me certainly wants you to know that this is a quiet, mellow, nostalgic sort of eel restaurant. They're not going overboard soliciting business - there's no sign out front, just a white noren, and in fact there aren't any other signs of life. But it's clean and neat, and there are some potted plants around the door, and a few bikes that may or may not belong to customers. I admit, I felt a little trepidation about poking my head in.

Inside is dark, cool and narrow. It's like thousands of other restaurants in Japan - small formica-topped tables with wood frames, matching squarish chairs, dark wood walls, perhaps a waving cat, perhaps a sumo schedule. The second floor is a tatami area (shoes off at the bottom of the stairs) and the kitchen is a galley in back. The waitress threatens to strain a vocal cord or two with her greeting, which is echoed on her apron. A table of very old businessmen sits in the front, passing an early and long summer lunch drinking shochu mixed with hot water. Their eel hasn't come yet.

Eel restaurants tend to serve one basic thing - lacquer boxes, packed with rice and topped with eel. You can pay more to get more. On the side, you can usually get a soup with eel liver. For your reference purposes (and mine, as the week progresses), I noted that the 'box' menu at Kametomi had three levels, Bamboo (Y1500), Pine (Y2000) and Special (Y2500). There are also a few other eel choices, and a very few chicken choices for those sick enough to order them. I'm not among them; the plan for this week is just to order the lowest-ranked box menu every day, and wash it down with a bottle of vegetable juice for health. The waitress surprised me by asking if I wanted a spoon; it's been a long time since anyone asked that!

Good eel takes time. The very few times I've had genuine, fresh eel, it took a good 40 minutes. This gets you from fishing the fish out of the tank, ice-picking it through the eye into the special hole in the cutting board, filleting it, skewering the fillets, steaming the skewers, brushing them with sauce (repeatedly) and grilling. A real eel meel therefore is a multi-course affair, and you can get either starters or else have a whole course while they make your main dish. For this reason I went early, but Kametomi had done all the pre-work and my box came right away.

Not a bad eel at all. Good sauce, tender but not mushy, and even crisped around the edges, which I find is something I quite like. The Bamboo size was clearly the small version; a normal size box, the rice wasn't completely covered. I make it out at a little less than a full eel.

As I was leaving, the oldest guy at the drinkers table asked me if it was good. Again I was surprised, but managed to get out a quick "Yeah, not bad," when I was actually thinking "Ask me on Friday when I have a better comparison set!"

I can't fight this eeling any more. I've forgotten what I started fighting for.

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