As reported on Friday on EOW, Kata Robata is set to celebrate Doyo-no-ushinohi, Tuesday, July 29, with a one day-only special menu of delicacies featuring freshwater eel. The holiday marks the first day of the period of the Ox and tradition dictates consuming foods whose names begin with a "u," i.e. unagi (freshwater eel).
Acclaimed Chef Horiuchi gave the Houston Press a preview of some of the dishes set to be available as well as a brief tutorial on the difference between fresh-water and saltwater eels and a demonstration of fileting techniques.
First came a palate-opener in the form of a smoky, citrus soup whose broth included succulent pieces of freshwater eel liver. Its warm ocean flavors prepared our mouths for a second course of grilled unagi accompanied by razor-thin slices of Japanese cucumber and seaweed tossed in an aromatic vinaigrette.
The buttery fish flesh laced with just a hint of charcoal spice left a most pleasant carbon footprint that only intensified a craving for more eel.
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This longing was partially satisfied by the arrival of two thick slices of umaki, a golden yellow omelet stuffed with eel. To make the exterior casing of this dish, Chef Hori uses a special pan that enables him to achieve the ultrathin layers of cooked eggs that enclose the thicker, meatier chunks of unagi.
More boldly flavored was dish to follow, a sculpted plate of unagi banked by eggplant, green peppers, and sansho spice. Despite emitting a palpable heat that would seem to presage a painful mouth-burning taste experience, the fattiness of the eel and supple mild eggplant slices tempered the peppers. Also surprising but pleasant was the slight licorice twang from the sansho berries that floated in the sauce.
Next, a whole desiccated eel provided a wonderful crunchy, intensely savory contrast. To achieve this eel "chip" of sorts, the fish is hung until dry, a process that allows its natural oils to peak in flavor and give rise to a terrific, oily snap to each bite.
Lastly, the crown jewel of Chef Hori's special collection freshwater eel dishes, unagidon, baked eel filets served over a bed of white rice.
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Sweet and salty soy sauce flavors of the sauce coating the fish seeped into the rice thereby significantly sprucing up the otherwise plain carbohydrate, while the oven heat highlighted the unctuous glory of the eel. Although one can easily just consume flesh and scales in the same bite, wrestling with the papery, crispy exterior of the eel is worth it for the divine flavor experience that comes from eating the skin on its own.
Six courses of "sea snake." Satisfied? Yes. Tired of eel? Hardly. Not even after watching Chef Hori filet the fish by sticking a nail through its eye to secure it to the cutting board, then deftly bisecting the eel and removing the liver.
See you on Tuesday.