Thursday, August 6, 2009

Tamai Anago, Kanda (あなご玉ゐ)

Rikki dont lose that number / Its the only one you own
You might use it if you eel better / When you get home
- Eely Dan

Yet again we break the eel-shop pattern today in several slight, distinct and interesting ways (not the least of which is that the eel was damn good!). I think there's a good chance of this place emerging as the week's winner, although my plan for tomorrow is the eel-ya generally agreed among my colleagues as the area's best. Either way, Tamai is an excellent specialist restaurant and one that's well worth visiting.

Frequent viewers of The Map will pick up the fact that Tamai is on the same street as three other places I've tried in the last week (not all eel). This is a coincidence, I swear it. From the outside, the dominant feature of the restaurant is their large banner proclaiming the existence inside of 'hako meshi', or 'boxed meals', which refers to the fact that their most popular dish is eel served on rice. The inside (at least on the ground floor, where we sat) is quite nondescript - just a few booths, a small and cramped-looking counter, and a small view into the kitchen. This is a far cry from their main store in Nihonbashi, a converted liquor store, which features warm, polished wood, quirky off-square walls, and deep, inviting booths.

But hey, we were there for the eel. The main difference here is that they're serving anago, sea eel, instead of unagi, freshwater eel. As Japanese people tend to say freshwater fish have a 'muddy' taste (especially things like carp and catfish, which are rarities precisely because of this taste), anago is usually described as lighter tasting or less fishy. And so it was - the grilled version was exemplary, light and almost fluffy, but with a tiny touch of grilled crustiness. The sauce was the most delicate, which is not to say flavorless, that I've had...ooh, all week. And all the box sets come with a bit of liver, but not just any liver - it's liver slowly simmered in soy sauce until it reaches salty, sweet perfection.

As you can see from the picture (from their web site), you get a lot more condiments and tomfoolery with your eel here than at other places. The picture is the Y2800 middle size; I had the more-sensible-for-lunch Y1600 small size, which has about 2/3 the amount of eel fillet. The three-spot tray behind the eel contains sesame seeds, wasabi and sliced green onion, while the little 'shovel' is actually a small broom. It's used to whisk shreds of green citrus peel (the waiter said yuzu, but I agree with another blog that it seemed like sudachi) from the perforated metal grater and onto the eel. Other dishes include their store-made onion and cucumber pickles as well as a very thick and rich miso soup.

In the picture, you can also see a tea pot pouring some tea, but it's a little more complicated than that. As mentioned in prior posts, the southern hitsumabushi style of eel eating involves a patented three step enjoyment process - first just eel and rice, then eel and rice and condiments, then eel and rice and condiments and soup. I know what you're thinking - they pour soup over the eel? And the rice?! OMG! And wouldn't it be fanTAStic if the soup was made from roasted, boiled eel bones? Be still my heart!

Well, that'll run you Y200 extra at Tamai, and I'm not sure I recommend it. It comes in a cast iron pot, which I would swear imparts a slight ironic flavor to the otherwise strangely fishy fishbone broth. (Just writing fishbone makes me chuckle, thinking about the band. I saw them live one time, when I was working in Miami.) It's nice to have the soup and feel like you've completed the experience (boiled bones, hitsumabushi, etc) but the flavor is a LOT less exciting than just the eel, by itself, which I could have eaten a lot more of.

At the main store, you can get other stuff - omelettes with soy-boiled eel, their pickles, standalone eel to take home, etc. This could be the start of an in-home eel dining extravaganza (they also deliver nationwide). At any rate, this is a place worth going back to, IF you can stomach the expense. Y2800 for a normal-sized lunch is pretty rich, no? I think back fondly to Provinage, where Y2800 got you three courses of very nice French food, and I wonder about the state of Japan.

Are you eelin' in the years?

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