Izuei Honten – 260-Year Old Unagi Restaurant

by Ed Lau on September 2, 2008

unagi, Izuei Honten, Tokyo, Japan, eel, kansai

Like with Steak House Satou, I first heard of Izuei Honten from Paul’s travel blog. He posted pictures of the Osaka-style unagi (eel) he had in…Osaka that looked so good, I was this close to licking the screen. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time (or money) to head to Osaka during my Japan trip so I went to the other unagi place, Izuei Honten, he recommended.

I forgot to take a picture of the actual restaurant but there is one on the Izuei’s website. Yes, I know what you’re thinking: there’s no way that building was built 260 years ago. Of course it has been renovated since it opened “in the mid-Edo period” but the traditions of cooking eel have been maintained for generations.

Izuei (2-12-22 Ueno, Taito-ku. 03-3831-0954) is a minute or two of walking from the Ueno train station if you head west from the Ueno zoo exit. In a city full of 10-15 seat restaurants, Izuei is quite a strange phenomenon with 150-something seats on multiple floors, a far cry from the “shack” that the owners tell me Izuei started as.

unagi, Izuei Honten, Tokyo, Japan, eel, kansai

The first time I ate at Izuei, I was greeted by a very polite lady in a yukata at the front door who spoke fluent English. It was barely 6pm but I had to wait about 20 minute for a table, which says a lot about the restaurant’s popularity. The second time when I went with k-rad.hk Carl, we got a traditional tatami mat table very quickly. The staff is mostly women who have obviously had much hospitality training, evident in their manners and serving procedures, right down to the way they sit on the tatami before pouring our tea. There are 6 or 7 floors, some have Western style chairs and tables and others are tatami mat. There isn’t anything non-smoking but you can request a private room if cigarettes bother you.

unagi, Izuei Honten, Tokyo, Japan, eel, kansai

I ordered a Himejyu on my first visit to Izuei…which you might find funny if you speak Japanese. Yes, that literally means “princess” meal, which I should’ve realized since I know both that “hime” means princess and that the first character in the word is “girl”. I’m sure the staff was snickering at me but in my hunger induced daze at the time, I was probably just looking for whatever looked good on the menu.

unagi, Izuei Honten, Tokyo, Japan, eel, kansai

To my credit, the meal looked attractive.

unagi, Izuei Honten, Tokyo, Japan, eel, kansai

The bottom of the two-tiered bowl is filled with unagi and rice and the top with various veggies and seafood.

unagi, Izuei Honten, Tokyo, Japan, eel, kansai

You also get a kimosui (eel liver soup, a very light broth…similar to a consumme) and a dish of Japanese pickles. At 3360Y, it was also a rather good value. The various veggies and seafood items didn’t really stand out but did balance the meal well as eating all that unagi and rice can feel very heavy.

On my second visit, the waitress handed Carl and I an English menu, which seems to be the case everywhere as everyone in Japan assumes the Asian guy speaks Japanese and doesn’t need the eigo menu but when I go places with Carl the White Boy, we get English menus. It’s funny because Carl probably speaks better Japanese than I do.

unagi, Izuei Honten, Tokyo, Japan, eel, kansai

We both opted for the Tonojyu, which is the “prince” meal. Rather than having any sort of seafood or veggies, the tonojyu is simply a massive bowl of unagi and rice. You also get the eel liver soup and dish of pickles for 3675Y.

unagi, Izuei Honten, Tokyo, Japan, eel, kansai

The portion in the tonojyu is massive with a layer of eel on top of a layer of rice

unagi, Izuei Honten, Tokyo, Japan, eel, kansai

…which is on top of another layer of eel and another layer of rice. It was so big that even big eaters like me and Carl couldn’t finish it all (well, the rice anyways).

The eel is fantastic, probably the best I’ve ever had. Every bite is filled with a smoky depth and a slight char. The skin is lightly crispy with a little oiliness. The meat itself is soft and incredibly light, which is sort of the opposite of what you expect based on its appearance.

I know eating eel might make a few of the less adventurous people squeamish since eels look gross but in all seriousness, unagi is delicious, especially well prepared eel. A definite must-try if you go to Japan.

in Food and Fine Dining,Travel

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Paul September 2, 2008 at 7:32 pm

Hey…I would have order the Himejyu if I knew it looks this good!
Or on second thought…the double layer of the Tonojyu would satisfy me more…but Himejyu for my wife if we ever go there again.

You went twice? Damn I’m jealous now.

Reply

ms danielle September 2, 2008 at 8:47 pm

mmmmmmmmmm…yummy… so i caught anthony bourdain’s No Reservations this past weekend and i’m convinced now (even more so) that i’m going to go back to tokyo for a couple months next year and just explore every food joint i can. you’re killing me man…

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kenny September 3, 2008 at 11:36 pm

I think you and Ed should start a food blog! Feel free to hire me to tag along to eat and… uhh take pictures? shoot video?

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Michael Kwan September 2, 2008 at 9:40 pm

Somehow the princess meal just sounds more complete. I love unagi don, but having some veggies and seafood to balance out the “weight” of the eel and rice would be welcome too.

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Jenny September 2, 2008 at 11:13 pm

I never eat eel…Not so sure with the taste. It looks like not a good food I think.

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Custom T-Shirts Toronto September 3, 2008 at 7:22 am

Me neither. I love sushi but eel is one thing I could never bring myself to eat. I blame it on a primal fear of snakes and snake-like creatures.

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Gary Diamond September 4, 2008 at 12:08 am

Sushi there is nothing better, but no eel. I have to agree here maybe a food blog by yourself ain’t to bad!!!

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king January 13, 2010 at 11:34 am

dat look good

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retails shopping February 17, 2010 at 8:22 am

wonderful dishes…

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