The mercury hit the 35-degree Celsius mark in Tokyo today (that's 95 F. for those Stateside) and will no doubt hover up there for the next couple of months. There's no harm in getting ahead of the game a bit and ramping up the energy levels: Time for the first unagi kabayaki (broiled eel) of the season.
However, unagi can be pretty rich, especially if it's just a quick lunch. So at one favourite local unagiya, I go for this instead: ai-nori don.
It's a donburi rice bowl topped half and half with kabayaki eel and yakitori chicken plus— a stick each of negi leek and green shishito peppers. They're all grilled to order over charcoal, a process that takes about 15 minutes, including a couple of dips in the vat of tare (basting sauce). It's worth the wait.
Before placing the unagi and yakitori on top, the chef first scatters the rice with some fine-sliced nori seaweed, adding another layer of flavor to the mix. And because it is served as a set lunch, it comes with miso-shiru and a saucer of Kyoto-style pickled greens on the side — and a bottomless mug of green tea, of course.
The condiments along the back are (right to left): powdered sansho, the tongue-tingling "pepper" that goes so well with unagi; the restaurant's own special in-house tare (a blended sauce) in case you like your eel more strongly seasoned; shoyu, ordinary soy sauce — some folks like to give their pickles a little extra hit of umami; and shichimi 7-spice, which goes with the chicken.
This will not be the last unagi I eat this summer. But with eel prices way up there this year, the ai-nori option makes it a lot more affordable, especially at lunchtime.