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Chef Tsukamoto Makotounadon holds a box of unadon, the Japanese name of a donburi dish, with grilled eel topped on rice. [Photo by Wang Zhuangfei/China Daily]
Amaster grill chef makes his specialty sing at a quiet Japanese restaurant in Beijing.
Tucked in a quiet street in the north of Beijing's embassy area, a small Japanese restaurant called Missi Missi has recently climbed onto local foodies' bucket lists.
Missi Missi could have been dwarfed amid the myriad fancy upscale Japanese restaurants in the capital, but its unagi (freshwater eel) and an elderly Japanese master chef behind the grill quickly have made the restaurant a hot ticket.
Hailing from the Japanese city of Nagoya, chef Tsukamoto Makoto, 67, has spent more than 40 years grilling eel in Japan, and another eight years in China. He now has a reputation among Chinese eel lovers, who have given him the nick-name "Grandpa Unadon".Unadon is the Japanese name of a donburi dish: grilled eel topped on rice.
When we went there, Makoto was bent over the hot charcoal grill at the back of the restaurant, fanning filets of eel. He seemed reticent. When asked why he carries on grilling eel in China, he replied in Japanese, "I can find better eel here in China".
The small space, in modern white decor with gnarled wood decoration on the wall, can only hold some 20 diners. Toward the back, there is the open grill, and a narrow sushi bar area wraps around it, allowing diners to watch how unagi is made.
Miso pork cutlet. [Photo by Wang Zhuangfei/China Daily]
In about 15 minutes, a dish of unadon arrived in front of us, basted with a sweet sauce made from soy sauce, mir in (rice wine) and sugar. It's a secret sauce made by Makoto - said to be extracted from fish-bone soup.
The instant we bit through that glistening grilled unagi, we under-stood why this little restaurant has earned its good reputation. The flesh tastes so savory sweet, and melts in the mouth within seconds. The beauty's in the sauce, not plentiful but well-blended with the eel and the translucent, high-grade Japanese rice.
The restaurant staff says Makoto pursues and enjoys a solitary cooking process when it comes to unagi. Selecting raw ingredients, preparing the sauces, and grilling the fillets - he insists on doing it all himself.
Makoto's work day starts around 11:30 am, when he heads over to neighboring Sanyuanli Market (also known as Xinyuanli market) to select his raw ingredients. A favorite among expats, the market's stalls are bursting with carefully presented fresh produce, seafood and tons of exotic stuff rare to find in Beijing.
Makoto is very strict in selecting raw ingredients. He chooses eels one by one; each must weigh around 600g. He says eels of this size tend to have the best texture and flavor.
In Japan, there are regional differences in the preparation of unagi. In the Kanto region (eastern Japan including Tokyo), eels tend to contain much fat, so they are first grilled, then steamed over high heat to sweat out excess fat, then grilled again. In Kansai (western Japan including Kyoto and Osaka), eels are usually more slim, and only need grilling, not steaming.
Grilled unagi. [Photo by Wang Zhuangfei/China Daily]
Makoto adopts the traditional Kansai way: The eel is split open from the stomach rather than the back, and he grills the fillets on skewers over charcoal without steaming.
Besides the noted unagi, Missi Missi offers other grilled items, such as chicken meatball, head of salmon, and some daily recommended grilled fish specials from the master chef.
Fried items such as a tempura assortment as well as sushi offerings are as good as some other Japanese restaurants you will find in Beijing, but not distinctive.
But one dish we ranked next to unagi at Missi Missi is miso pork cutlet (68 yuan, or $10.90), a specialty from the chef's hometown of Nagoya. Deep-fried marinated pork chops are beautifully crisp on the outside, tender and succulent inside. Biting through the crunchy breading into the juicy meat gives an intense taste bud. The red miso-based sauce, topped onto the pork outlets is sweet and salty, adding a burst of flavor. Shredded cabbage salad is also paired on the plate.
Grilled eel (128 yuan) and unadon (148 yuan) are only served during dinner hours. If you want to have Grandpa Unadon's signature eel dishes, be sure to make a reservation at least one or two days in advance, as only 20 eels are served daily.
Crab pot. [Photo by Wang Zhuangfei/China Daily]
If you go
11:30 am-2 pm, 5:30-10 pm Monday to Saturday
2 Sanlitun Beixiao Jie (Street), at corner of Liangmahe Nan Lu, Chaoyang district