During my inaugural visit to Tokyo years back, one of the things which struck me most about the dining scene there was the incredible degree of specialization of the restaurants there. For example, there are places which only serve one type of ramen from one part of Japan, whereas another would be a Hokkaido crab specialist, while another dealt exclusively in tofu skin, and so on. The business owners there knew the risk of narrowing down their menu offerings. But at the same time, they realized that if they properly prepared their special dish and/or ingredient, this would assure them a niche repeat audience in a large city, and also reduced the likelihood of direct competition from other wannabes.
Since that first eye-opening trip, I’ve often wondered if the Japanese dining scene in Los Angeles would ever evolve to anywhere the level of culinary specialization I had seen in Tokyo. With the opening of the newest branch of Toku Unagi and Sushi in West Hollywood, it seems we Angelenos are indeed one step closer.
Unagi, or freshwater eel, holds a special place in Japanese cuisine. The preparation of eel is steeped in tradition. In its homeland, unagi don (eel rice bowl) is considered a ”power dish” to be consumed, and is hugely popular there. Erstwhile here in L.A., though unagi don and unagi hitsumabushi are sometimes found on menus in various eateries around town (such as Wadatsumi and occasionally Hayato), there has not been an unagi specialist which has set up shop before.
Occupying the second-floor space of the former Sushi Wa in West Hollywood, Toku Unagi and Sushi welcomes customers with a bright and welcoming dining room and bar. Yes, there is a sushi bar, and yes, sushi is served here. The remainder of the menu also looks appealing, with a myriad of other eel preparations and a whole host of appetizers and small bites. But we are primarily here for unagi!
A shot of the sake list, for those interested…
Toku serves two main special preparations of eel, with generations-old recipes hailing from Hamamatsu, in Shizuoka Prefecture. First there is unaju, which is a classic eel rice served with eel sauce, in a lacquered container. A second method of preparation in which to enjoy is the unagi is to order the eel rice served in an ohitsu (Japanese rice bucket) with tea. I decided to go with the hitsumabushi (ohitsu with tea) prep.
The chef cooks the eel over hot coals. He then applies the eel sauce, the recipe for which was developed in the Meiji era.
Tea: Japanese green tea… Refreshing and vibrant.
Appetizers: Crab salad with vinaigrette… This was lovely. The delicate seasoning and fresh lumps of crab meat were delightful and really whet my appetite for the unagi goodness to come.
Appetizer: Cashew potato salad… Nice and smooth, topped with a pinch of black pepper.
Appetizer: Tofu steak with mushroom, in Japanese broth sauce. This was great! Balances of textures and flavors from the tofu, mushroom, all bathed in an umami-laden broth.
And now, onto the main event: Unagi hitsumabushi (tea on rice with broiled eel, served in ohitsu), “Extra Special” edition… A gorgeous bucket of eel rice was presented with sliced scallions and wasabi for garnish, some Japanese pickles, and a pot of hot tea. Miso soup was served on the side as well. In addition, there is also a wonderful soft tofu with seasoning, which was just excellent.
There are three stages to experiencing this dish. First, enjoy the unagi don on its own… WOW! An explosion of splendor. The flavorful nori in the rice really adds to the bite! And the eel is just so fluffy and straight-up delicious. The rice itself is a premium Japanese blend, and accompanies the eel in flawless unison, soaking up all those juices from the eel and the sauce.
Second, add the garnishes to season… The crunchiness of the pickles and punch from the freshly-grated wasabi (from Shizuoka) add a new dimension to the bowl. Delightful!
And finally, pour the tea into the remaining eel rice… The addition of the tea allows all the sauce coating the bowl to mix back into the rice, and elevates the whole dish yet again with its delicacy. This dish is pretty much exactly the same in terms of quality and brilliance that I recall from Japan.
House-made hoji-cha ice cream with mint sprig and tea… Another surprise here, as the ice cream is packed with sweet delicate earthy tones. What a wonderful way to finish a great unagi meal!
Service is cheerful and attentive. I really felt taken care of here. Store manager Makoto-san runs a tight ship, and does it all with a genuine smile.
Toku Unagi and Sushi offers experienced eaters and newcomers alike with a true Japanese unagi feast. Side dishes here are strong as well. Without doubt, I must come back to try the lacquered box unaju, and a slew of the other small dishes also. The eel specialist has arrived in L.A.!
Toku Unagi and Sushi
1106 N. La Cienega Bl., Suite 201
West Hollywood, CA 90069