Food and Food: Asia and japan and Travels21 Nov 2010 11:28 am

Eel is delicious. Sure, it is creepy as all get out, but it is fatty and fluffy (some say like pate), delicious with sauce and has a skin that crisps up. It is no wonder there is a designated eel eating day in Japan. It is said to increase stamina and help you deal with the heat.

In Kansai (Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto regions) the eel is just grilled – in other areas, there is a steaming step that helps remove excess fat. So eel from this area is especially prized for its flavour and texture differences. Many things play a role in the eel grilling; the charcoal type, the way the eels are sliced (in Kansai they are opened from the stomach, not the spine), the sauce that is added.

At a speciality eel restaurant, the eels are kept alive until you order them, and all parts of the eel are served in a multi course meal where you taste all the organs and bits and bobs. So it is worth a visit to one of these places if you love eel.

Our last full day in Kyoto we chose to have lunch at an eel restaurant called Gion U in the ancient cultural district of Gion. Again, we relied upon our concierge to make a booking for us, partly as we heard it was a busy lunch restaurant and mostly because we wanted a special set menu that had to be ordered a few days in advance.

Again, we chose a restaurant from the Michelin guide, just for ease of picking. They serve their eel in special wooden tubs, which impart a particular flavour to the rice and eel. So they say. I am just going to come right out and say I was disappointed.

I am never sure what to do when I have a bad restaurant experience. I usually just do not blog about them, to be honest. The internet does not need any more negativity and besides being my creative outlet I am still unsure what kind of information, valuable or useless, my blog provides to the world at large.

In any case, I feel compelled to write about this restaurant because, for one, I think it was horrible value. Secondly, it does not deserve its Michelin star, in my opinion. Lastly, there is not a lot of information about this place in English online.

Initially, there was a lot to be excited about. The freshwater eel (unagi) used is locally caught, it is served in special cedar tubs made by a Japanese national treasure in woodworking, Kiyotsugu Nakagawa. In certain seasons this restaurant even hand catches eel with bamboo.

When we arrived, we were asked to take our shoes off, as is the custom at many Japanese restaurants. The floor was wet from just being sloshed on, and I curled my feet up as I tried to stop them from getting soaked and cold. It made for an awkward moment as both Mike and I wobbled, shoeless, trying to make it up the stairs to the dining room.

When we were seated in the empty room, we were shown the menu which I did not expect, as we had purposely placed a special set menu order ahead of time. I am not sure exactly where the ball was dropped; maybe the concierge did not communicate our desires to the restaurant. Maybe it was forgotten about during the booking on the restaurant’s end. Who knows! But, it was then that we were informed we could not have the “hanami” eel set course for two as it had to be ordered ahead of time…which we … well, you get the idea. There was not going to be a special lunch that day.

The server did her best at accommodating us and helped recreate the hanami course, but right from the start I felt like we were a huge inconvenience. This is the first and only time I have felt this way at any restaurant in Japan. Even with our ordering blunders, mispronunciations and downright inability to read menus, people have gritted their teeth into a smile and atleast been able to hide their disdain, making me feel even partially welcome as a diner. I felt like a burden to this woman, and this is not how you should feel at a Michelin starred restaurant, in my opinion.

What was even more strange was that we the only diners in the restaurant for the first thirty minutes of opening, right at the lunch rush. Even as we left two hours later, there were still only four other diners who came during our time there. And they all got unagi don bowls.

Our makeshift hanami courses started to arrive, beginning with shirayaki. This is unadorned grilled eel, prized by eel enthusiasts for its lack of other flavours save for eel, but full on texture. It was light, fluffy. But there was something lacking; I found it a bit bland to be honest.

Next, umaki, or eel wrapped in egg with daikon. This was really delicious, and an omelette I would never turn down, even though I probably can count the number of eggs I eat in this style in a year on one hand.

Then, eel sashimi. Surprisingly tendonous and crunchy, from all the bones the eels have. It is not like most sashimi that melts in your mouth. Kansai style sashimi is made in a “yu arai” method, which is dipping it into hot water then blanching it by putting it into ice water. This removes slipperiness that eel can have.

The next dish was the speciality, the kabayaki. This is eel with sauce on rice. At Gion U, this dish is served in handmade cedar wooden tubs. People make a big deal out of these tubs. It was a beautiful presentation, for sure, but I kind of feel like it was all hype. Maybe the fact that we had a make do set meal where the rice was not baked in the tub like it was supposed to.

The eel was grilled on bamboo skewers over charcoal and very delicious.

The “secret” sauce was fine; maybe a bit thin. Normally at many lower grade sushi restaurants here you get a very thick, sweet tare, or sauce on the eel. It masks a lot of the flavour of the fish, so I was happy to find something a bit lighter that did not hide the flavour of this very expensive meal.

This also came with some of the strangest pickles I have had in Japan. Very sour, funky tasting pickles. Odd.

To close out the meal was a bowl of kimosui, or a clear unagi liver soup.

The Tub of Which Many People Have Spoken

Cute rabbit themed ceramics

Wooden tubs waiting to be filled

The exterior of Gion U. Fun fact: the Japanese hiragana letter for the “U” sound is う, which is the white symbol on the wooden board, and on their menu. It looks rather eel-like, so it is often used in restaurants serving eel.

So when it was all said and done, and I had to ask for the rest of my eel to be packed up (after dropping off our last course we did not see our server for atleast 35 minutes) and we paid our truly exorbitant bill, I kind of felt let down. Some might say it is because my palate does not appreciate fine eel. I think that is a faulty argument. Some might say it is because the Michelin guide has ruined dining, and is especially unwelcome in Japan. Many restaurants in the Kansai region guide refused to be photographed, as they did not wish for the notoriety that comes from being in the book and did not want to swell their already impressive reservation lists.

I am not sure what the case was with Gion U. Has it has turned into a tourist trap, did we just got off the wrong (wet) foot there, or were we simply not welcome? Either way, if I return to Kyoto, I will be looking for another place to get my eel fix.

Gion U
日本, 〒605-0074 京都府京都市東山区祇園町南側570−120 (祇園う)
Closed Mondays
Lunch: 12:00 to 14:00 (last order: 14:00)
Dinner: 17:00~21:00(last order: 20:30)

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