Eel’s bound to happen. Following the one-bowl trend of chirashi don, and tendon, the unagi don is making a comeback. [Why comeback? Because Chikuyotei brought a refinement to unagi don(key) years ago.] Also known as unadon, a shortening of two words unagi (eel) and donburi (rice bowl), the dish simply consists of eel over rice.
The eel is prepared by the cooking method kabayaki, which means the eel is glazed with a sweet soy sauce called tare and grilled and glazed again. Usually the extra sauce will drip into the rice. The Kantō region goes an extra step of steaming it before grilling to ensure that it’s tender.
These are some of the newly opened shops specializing in unagi dons:
Akasaka Yukun @ Japan Foods Garden
1 Scotts Road, Food Republic @ Shaw Lido, #B1-01, Singapore 228208
T: +65 6493 7300
Opened in September, Japan Foods Garden is inside Food Republic, right at the end. It’s one of the 4 new clusters of Japanese food offering, the other 3 being Japan Food Town, Eat at Seven, and Emporium Shokuhin. Unlike the 3 clusters which have separated restaurants, dining at Japan Foods Garden foodcourt-style means you’ve more choices.
Akasaka Yukun, one of the stalls at Japan Foods Garden, was first founded in Kyushu in 1952, and now has 8 outlets across Japan. This is its first overseas branch.
What is unique about Akasaka Yukun is that they glaze, steam, and glaze the eel; they don’t grill it. The glaze is a secret recipe that has been passed down for 3 generations. It is served in a bamboo box to give a woody fragrance.
What I like about the don is the rice. Although the rice is too soft, it is cooked together with eel, and hence it has been stained brown; when you chew long enough, there is an inimitable sweetness. The eel itself has a nice clean bite.
However, the pricing is expensive at a foodcourt, more expensive than at a restaurant: $28.80 for a layer of eel, $38.80 for 2.
Service: NA (foodcourt)
Decor: NA (foodcourt)
Bonta Bonta @ Japan Food Town
435 Orchard Road, Wisma Atria #04-39 Singapore 238877
t: +65 6262 3207
The 3 month-old Bonta Bonta, which means “Japanese way of thinking,” specializes in rice. It uses kinme mai, or rice that doesn’t require washing by using the latest rice-milling technology, retaining a “sub-aleurone layer,” so that it’s sweeter, and has more vitamins but less calories than normal rice. In the eternal words of Richard Dawkins, “Science works, bitches!”
But for a hole-in-the-wall that specializes in rice, the rice is not very nice. It’s too wet and soft, and yet despite its flaws, it did give us a high. We thought it was shiok but we couldn’t explain it. Maybe it was the “sub-aleurone layer” working at a subatomic, subconscious level.
Although they offer various toppings other than unagi on their rice bowls, and you may be tempted to try others, don’t! We tried a palm-sized uni don for freaking $30, but the inferior uni was bland.
The unagi don ($15/$28), however, is very, very delicious. It comes in a big piece, so it’s visually stunning. The onsen egg is a nice touch, giving a creaminess. The eel itself is very tender, malleable but not brittle. It’s sprinkled generously with shichimi, or 七味 powder, which gives it a spicy, sweet kick. There seems to be cloves and cardamom in the powder, pungent, choking and shiok for me. We got the $15 bowl but it’s worth going for the bigger bowl.
A word of advice. The restaurant encourages you to eat the rice bowls as hitsumabushi, that is, they encourage you to pour the dashi broth over the rice bowl like Hakka thunder rice 雷茶. DON’T. It will only dilute the flavors of the unagi. If you want, scoop the rice into a separate bowl, and pour the dashi onto plain rice. Eat the unagi as it is.
We paid $55 for two persons.
Price: 7/10 (for unagi don. The other rice bowls are expensive.)
Food: 7.5/10 (for unagi don only)
Man Man Japanese Unagi Restaurant
1 Keong Saik Road, #01-01, Singapore 089109
M-Sat & PH: 11.30am-3pm, 6pm-10.30pm, Closed on Sun
Man Man is by the wildly successful Teppei omakase restaurant which has extended into the ubiquitous takeout stall Teppei Syokudo, found at basements of many shopping malls.
At Man Man, the charcoal grilled unagi comes twice a week from the Mikawa Isshiki region, famous for its top quality unagi. The live eels are displayed, swimming in tanks at the entrance.
The kitchen is helmed by Chef Nakagawa-san, who has worked in a Mikawa unagi shop for more than 20 years. If you sit by the counter, you can see the chef slaughtering the live eel. As the eel struggles and wiggles, he pierces and pins it through the eye to the chopping board and then he slices the stomach from head to tail. He then skewers and puts it on hot charcoal. Someone says it’s brutal, I say it’s manly.
There are two recommended sets: the unagi don ($25.80 shown above/ or $32.80) or the hitsumabushi ($26.80, below). The difference is that the unagi don comes with tamago, and the hitsumabushi is eaten with soup, like the one at Bonta Bonta.
The unagi is very bold. It has much char on the surface while the inside remains moist and tender. It’s super salty, and super sweet, and with the char, it creates a very masculine flavor. If you are the sort who prefer salad, subtlety, and fish soup, then you won’t like this. But if you like heavy flavors like I do, this one hits the spot.
They also serve a shirayaki ($27.80) version, that is, there is no sauce glazed on it. It’s also very delicious, and the salt brings out the natural sweetness of the eel.
Man Man is scheduled to open on 12 October. Enter by the back alley between Keong Saik and Teo Hong Road.
Decor: 7/10 (needs better ventilation)
Service: 6.5/10 (good service but they can’t handle the crowd. More servers needed.)
Written by A. Nathanael Ho.