A versatile talent, Taiwan-born Karen Chen has helmed a diverse array of restaurants from Shanghai mainstay, Jian Guo 328 to new wave Sichuan joint Yi Zhang Hong, and now, Japanese grilled-eel joint Unagi, which is her best venture yet. This isn’t a foray into a new genre, it’s a conquest. Unagi’s namesake is one of the best pieces of eel (hell, fish) you’ll find in Shanghai.
Now, we had our doubts about a Taiwan-born Shanghai-dweller attempting something as niche as Japanese grilled freshwater eel (unagi, うなぎ). Especially in downtown Shanghai, where the majority of Japanese restaurants’ seem to exist solely to supply low-rent sake and freezer-burned sushi to expat birthday parties. But Chen has circumvented this by bringing on board on a Tokyo eel maven to help hone her local chefs’ skills, and sourcing her unagi from a Fujian fish factory that supplies live eel to Japan – a nice semi-locavore touch. It’s the freshest eel you’ll find outside of the Japanese enclave in Gubei.
A long bar stocked with sake, wine, and more traverses the entire first floor, eventually segwaying into a mini-kitchen where your eel is grilled. Upstairs entails a series of curtained rooms with pillows on which to sit. It’s homey and intimate, like something you’d wander into while perusing Rappongi’s labyrinthine back-alleys. Servers are expedient and polite, but not smotheringly so like at Unagi’s counterparts in the motherland.
Japanese fried chicken
Despite bearing the name ‘Unagi,’ unagi doesn’t have the comprehensive selection of Ibashou, where they serve every part of the eel but the slither. They offer a few gritty bits like the roasted livers (28RMB) and the spines (25RMB), which are bathed in a deep-fryer until brittle and chip-like, but their mainstay is Nagoya-style freshwater eel, (150RMB) or hitsumabushi, a dish dating back to the Edo period. The fish is fresh-killed, grilled, and lathered with sweet sauce, grilled again, sauced, and so on until bronze and charred. Like with cooking a steak, it’s essential to know how high of a temperature you should use relative to the amount of fat. You also have to know when to turn the fish on the grill. And Unagi has mastered this.
After the grilling, the brown slats of eel are slapped on a mat of egg strips and rice, and paired with kombu dashi (kelp stock), nori strips, sesame seeds and wasabi.
This dish meant to be eaten in three steps, which are outlined on the menu with pics. First, you scoop about a third of your portion into a smaller bowl and mix the rice and eel together. Then, you nab another third, this time adorning it with wasabi and green onions. Finally, you serve yourself the last third with seaweed, wasabi, and green onions. Top it off with a generous dousing of kombu.
Laowai charlatans that we are, we used about a third too much eel for step 1. Honestly, we could’ve eaten the whole fish plain. It’s that fatty and good. Most versions seem like any dry piece of perch, this is inlaid with so much fat it tastes like a snapper filet that mated with a block of New Zealand butter.
The Nagoya eel rice is Unagi’s starring attraction, but the backup players aren’t too bad either. We propose the curry rice with the deep-fried pork cutlet (50RMB), the fried squid, or the Japanese fried chicken (38RMB), which manages to taste luscious and moist despite being garbed in thick, tempura-sque batter.
Chase everything with a bottle shop’s variety of sake and shochus starting at 38RMB per glass.
You no longer need to make a pilgrimage out to Hongqiao to get your unagi on.
Unagi – 342 Wulumuqi Zhong Lu, near Wuyuan Lu (乌鲁木齐中路342号, 近五原路). Tel: (0)21-6438-7383. Hours: 11am-10pm.
See a complete list of our reviews here.
Benjamin Cost is Shanghaiist’s Food Editor. Email tips, recommendations, and news updates on Shanghai’s dining scene to [email protected].