Monday, February 16, 2015

Anago, in many ways at Ginza Hirai - a One Michelin Star Restaurant in Tokyo

It may seem amazing to some that the city that has the most restaurants with Michelin stars is no longer Paris.  For quite a number of years now, Tokyo has held that distinction.  
More one-,  two-  and three- star Michelin restaurants can be found here than anywhere else.  

This February, I was again fortunate to go to Tokyo for a quick business trip.  
Naturally, I called my ex-director and dear gourmet friend Abe san for a catch up dinner.  
Abe san  always says he is glad to see me --  I am a good excuse to go out and discover yet another delectable dish or another small but excellent restaurant.  
On this cold winter night, we took a short cab ride to the Ginza area where this little alleyway 
hides a one star Michelin  restaurant.

Hirai, tucked away in the  Ginza 5-chome area, is a restaurant devoted to the delicate
deliciousness of the anago or salt water conger eel.  Don't be put-off by its unprepossessing facade ...
Hirai is focused on the single-minded pursuit of preparing anago in the most ambrosial ways possible.

Even my hashioki or chopstick rest sports a happy smile!  This definitely bodes well for the 
rest of the evening.

We arrive quite early and have the place to ourselves.  Hirai is not a big restaurant.  
There are only four  tables and a small counter that seats four.

It's a semi open kitchen at Hirai.  From my seat by the door, I could watch part of the action going on in the cooking area.  There are two chefs inside, that plus one waitress brings the total staff to just three.   It never ceases to amaze me how efficient and smooth service is in restaurants in Japan,
even with a minimum number of staff.

We see a copy of the latest Michelin guide at the counter and easily find the bookmarked  page where Hirai is featured.

There are cute eels drawn on the handwritten menu.  No english menu and no photos of food either.
Of course this is nothing to worry about as I have Abe san who does all the ordering.
I did get to practice my extremely low level of Nihongo with the attentive and amused waitress who despite single handedly waiting on all the tables, still had time to stop and chat each time she brought our food.

I ordered my usual nama beer and was taken aback when it was brought not in a glass,  
but in a tall lovely, two-toned brown and beige glazed beer mug.  The beer head formed a 
high, creamy dome  --  it was so pretty I could barely bring myself to take a sip.

Our dinner started with a serving of sashimi - just a few slices of dark red meguro or tuna and a lone ebi or shrimp.  The freshness opened up my appetite and signalled my brain that more goodies were yet to come.

Next up --  three thin slices of anago yakiniku, grilled with just shio or salt.
A slim sliver of pink and white hajikami or pickled ginger root was artfully placed on top.
A dash of salt, a smidgin of fresh wasabi and a small slice of lime were all  the condiments
needed to enhance one's enjoyment of this dish.

After that,  came anago tare yakiniku with a mild sweetish sauce.  The sauce did not distract
from the natural sweetness of the eel.   Julienned green onions accompanied this truly
melt-in-your-mouth dish.  Shite ga tokeru -- as Abe san taught me to say.

Abe san also ordered tempura moriawase which included a piece of anago, buried
underneath the lightly fried vegetables.

Unagi or fresh water eel is richer and oilier than anago and is usually prepared only by by grilling then basting with a sweet eel sauce.
Anago or salt water eel however lends itself well to other ways of cooking -- like being battered and deep fried as evidenced by this firm yet soft piece of tempura.

By this time, Abe san felt we had probably not yet fully indulged in the exceptional anago 
specialties that Hirai had to offer.  He ordered this small dish of anago no hone or
deep fried anago bones.  These were crisp, salty and just plain addictive.
It was like eating shoestring potatoes but -- moto suki desu as they say.
I like this better!
Anago no hone was the perfect otsumami or food eaten with alcohol -- in Tagalog,
we would call it pulutan.

For a modern take on anago, Hirai's chef offered up this next dish. 
 If you deconstruct this, at the bottom is a piece of meltingly sweetish grilled anago, topped by a 
crunchy cucumber slice, topped by a cube of soft, salty, creamy cheese.  
Each little pile is then liberally sprinkled with firm fresh tobiko or fish roe.
Amazing!  All the flavours combined to make for a luscious, scrumptious bite.  
The cheese added that last umami kick that made it utterly toku betsu --  extraordinarily special!
We shared this dish evenly -- three pieces  for me and three for Abe san.  
Although, if he had looked away for just a second, I would have swiped one 
without feeling any pangs of guilt.

Abe san wanted to know if I was still up for one last course --and of course I said yes.
After all, everything that had come before could be seen as appetisers leading to the grand finale.
The anago setto was placed in front of me.  The tray had a small bowl of miso soup,  some tsukemono or pickles, a generous bowl of anago donburi and a smaller empty bowl.
Abe san said to eat the donburi not from its bowl but to place it in the small red bowl.
Later on he said we would be given some dashi stock that we would use to make a porridge
with what would be left of the anago and rice -- therefore, I was not to wolf everything down but keep some for when the dashi would be brought over.

For a bit of spice, this small grater had freshly grated wasabi root.  If so desired, sprinkle the 
grated wasabi on the anago donburi using the little bamboo brush.  I love how meticulous 
the chef was about the finer details of how we could really savour each dish that he prepared.

Halfway through my donburi, this little teapot was brought over.
It contained a very delicate dashi stock that I poured over the remaining rice and
anago in my bowl -- creating a subtle and comforting finish to another quintessentially
Japanese food experience.

 Here is an "action shot" of Abe san relishing his meal.  By the time we were ready to leave, Hirai was full and the next diners were waiting outside to take our place.

Off I went into the chilly February  night, warmed by the good companionship of an
old and dear friend, lots of beer and shochu and yes, soft and sweet anago.
I took one last look at this cul de sac where thanks to Abe san, I had unearthed yet another
gustatory gem in Tokyo.
If you find yourself wandering around the back streets of Ginza 5 chome,  don't forget to look
for this little arcade that houses the one-star Michelin restaurant called Hirai.
You can recognise the caricature of the eel on the lighted sign.

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