Karen Chen has created her best restaurant yet. She’s the sweet, calm-mannered Taiwanese owner who opened the always-packed Shanghainese joint Jian Guo 328, which we raved about, and then the only mildly successful Sichuan Yi Zhang Hong, which we pronounced as lacking spice. Chen’s practice has always been to serve homestyle food made with purified water and no MSG. She seeks out narrow rooms in old former French Concession buildings which she upgrades with small stylish touches.
With her foray into Japanese food, Chen has brought into the heart of the former French Concession an extraordinary version of unagi (grilled eel on rice), a classic dish in Japan where there’s even a holiday dedicated to it. In Shanghai there are several restaurants specialising in unagi but the best ones are in Gubei or Minhang, close to the Japanese residential communities.
Chen’s Shanghainese restaurant succeeds because she upgraded the dingy hole-in-the-wall experience of some local spots while preserving the appealing neighbourhood feel. With Unagi, she’s once again made something traditional yet somewhat unapproachable into a more accessible affair.
The best unagi relies on the very freshest eel and live fresh water eels don’t come cheap. For her supplier, Chen found a Fujian fish factory which ships live eels to Japan. She hired a consultant chef from Tokyo who will continue to train her local chefs every three months.
Her signature dish, eel rice Nagoya-style (150RMB) is cooked according to age-old practices. The fish is fresh-killed each day, then the flesh is steamed. The fillets are then dipped in sauce and grilled three times in a row: sauce, grill, sauce, grill, sauce, grill. The result is a sigh-inducing char on the skin and a full smoky flavour which penetrates deep into the moist, tender flesh. Laid atop a bed of ruffly, thin omelette strips and then fluffy rice, you experience multiple layers and textures of skin, juicy fish, shredded omelette and plump rice grains in each bite.
The eel bowl is meant to be eaten in three proscribed steps (spelled out on the menu): first, by itself, naked and unadorned; second, after adding condiments: wasabi, nori and sesame seeds; third, the accompanying kombu broth is poured over, and one sips the entire umami-rich concoction as a soup.
While the eel is obviously the major draw here, there are also snacks and sets with more down-to-earth prices, such as curry rice with deep fried pork filet (50RMB), which comes with steamed egg custard, miso soup and a miniature salad of corn and okra. The pork cutlet is a giant, super-thick cut, which releases delectable juices as you bite in.
Unagi also has an impressive array of sake and shochu displayed in 1.8 litre bottles lining the shelves and the counter, which start at just 30RMB/cup. The ideal pairing with a few rounds of sake would be Chen’s professed favourite snack, the crispy Japanese fried chicken (38RMB).
There aren’t many seats here, just a line of chairs along the first-floor counter and a tatami area upstairs. It’s an intimate dining experience, the kind of place you could contentedly eat alone, contemplating each bite and enjoying a quiet chat with Chen, who is regularly found behind the counter, smiling and introducing each dish to happy diners.
By Crystyl Mo