Unagi-Ya Hachibei, NYC

February 19, 2019

Unagi-Ya Hachibei opened in October 2018; Linda and I went for dinner on January 17, 2019.  The name comes from unagi, for fresh-water eel, and chef Okuno Hachibei, the restaurant’s consultant who is known in Japan for his eel expertise.

The restaurant is up an exterior staircase above a Chinese restaurant on East 53rd Street. It is marked only by a Japanese lantern. There are counters for dining, but there is no food preparation behind them. One was overlooked by an enormous, garish ikabana arrangement.

The other end and the bar had discreet bonzais.

In general, the décor and furnishings are quite basic. We sat at a table as there did not seem to be any point to the counters. 

We shared a can of Asahi beer to quench our thirst. We chose the Unagi Kaiseki menu.

We ordered a bottle of Denshu sake, described on the list as “ deep, daring, round and umami.”

The first appetizer was
Caesar salad with fried eel croutons.

The crisp croutons were impregnated with a strong eel flavor, which was an appropriate substitute for anchovies.

Yakko Tofu

Cold frothy, ginger-flavored tofu was topped with bonito flakes.

Umaki (eel wrapped in rolled egg omelette); Hone-Senbei (deep fried eel bones); Kimo kushi (grilled eel liver skewers marinated in special sauce.)

The skewer was interesting and good. Linda really liked the crisp bones. 

The appetizers were interesting, but the portions were too large for a kaiseki menu.

Unagi no Kabayaki (Whole grilled eel basted with special sauce over rice.)

This was the main attraction. Smoked daikon pickles and clear soup were alongside. 

The unaju, or split eel, had been presented to us before its grilling.

The menu says: “Our unique grilling technique takes special effort, time and patience, resulting in the ideal conditions of pleasantly firm, seared skin that is slightly burned, while maintaining an inside that is juicy and plump, adding it a rich flavor and aroma by our sauce.”  This was the “West coast” style which we selected. One can also choose the “East coast” style, which has “softer and tender texture.”

The “kabayaki” sauce was excellent, more elegant than at Nodaiwa, the most prestigious eel restaurant in Tokyo. The sauce there seemed to be bit like a barbecue sauce and became boring. This sauce had complexities and held our interest.  Its dripping onto the rice was important, although we could not finish all the rice. (But we did finish the eel.) 

Linda ended with green tea ice cream, which was not very interesting.

I had yuzu ice cream, which was quite good.

We enjoyed our meal. The other diners that evening were all Japanese and just had the Kabayaki set. That would have been the sensible thing to do, but we are always curious about other unusual offerings. The service from three ladies with basic English was very good. The pace was fine. The noise level was okay: good piano to start, but becoming louder towards the end.  If you like eel, I do not think you can do better than Unagi-Ya Hachibei.



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