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A quick-service approach to Unagi
501 Orchard Road
#02-15/16 Wheelock Place
Tel: 6732 1096
Open daily for lunch and dinner: 12pm to 2.30pm; 6pm to 9.30pm (until 10pm on Fri and Sat)
DOES unagi taste better after you've had to wait for one to three hours, and after you've witnessed it being slit alive as the ultimate proof of freshness? Or is it just as good, if not better, in a place that lets you make a reservation, kills its eels discreetly out of view, and lets you watch the way they cook it only if you can be bothered to peer through the glass of a very compact, nondescript kitchen?
That seems to be the main question when it comes to Uya, a new unagi restaurant which has styled itself so closely to that rabidly popular Man Man by Teppei, it immediately sets itself up for a comparison, if not a confrontation.
An aversion to queues means we ourselves have never been to Man Man, but on the outset, both offer a near identical concept: a quick-service eatery with minimal frills, and the star attraction being rice topped with grilled unagi slicked with syrupy, sweet-savoury tare - the magic sauce that can make or break a restaurant's reputation more than the actual eels.
You sweep through a large white noren - nah, big curtain - that covers the restaurant entrance, decorated with a calligraphic swirl of an eel that tries to smother you as you go past. The small, classroom-type space is designed to pack as many seats in as possible, and to turn them over fast. The staff are primed to feed you quickly and have no time for simpering requests like, "Can I order first but be served when my friend comes?" Of course they say yes, and of course your order comes less than five minutes later.
This quick-service approach tends to undermine what's good at Uya, which is the unagi rice. It becomes more of a race to give a competitor a run for its money rather than to create an intimate, authentic Japanese dining experience.
So don't expect anything by way of ambience or Japanese hospitality. The staff are mostly harried because of the onslaught of diners who descend at lunchtime and disappear just as quickly by 2pm.
Because Uya is run by the people behind Koji Sushi and Shunjuu Izakaya restaurants (and their Nagoya-based partner), you get an eclectic menu that is half unagi-related and half conventional Japanese fare - chirashi dons, beef bowls, tempura and the like.
The sashimi rice bowl (S$23) isn't bad at all for the price - basic quality but fresh, and the rice is edible unlike the disgusting stodgy mass squished into a supermarket version. A top-up of uni and fatty tuna adds another S$18 to it - skip the uni and just get the fatty tuna.
Crispy unagi bone (S$6) sounds exotic but are just hard and oily deep-fried stick-thin vertebrae. Keep them in case you ever need to fish something out of a very thin crack.
Unagi liver look like chicken hearts (S$9) and taste like a cross between the two - there's a slight rubbery resistance and soft, liver-y gaminess. We think we like it, sort of.
We're less ambiguous about the unagi egg roll (S$9) - thick, puffy rolled omelette stuffed with eel bits that pander to our fluffy egg fixation.
Then, comes the main event: the signature Hitsumabushi (S$35/S$48) - a boxed eel set that comes with condiments, soup and dashi stock. Lengths of grilled eel are chopped and laid on top of good quality rice, drizzled with tare made from a secret recipe passed down in the Nagoya partner's family for four generations. It's very good - with just the right balance of sweet and savoury - and they are not stingy with it either. There's a little pot of it on the table that you can add to your rice.
The eel - which is a Japanese breed sourced from Taiwan or Japan depending on the season - is also good. It's not melt in the mouth soft like some eels can be, leaning towards mushiness. These hold their shape and don't collapse easily, tender with just a hint of crust from the grilling. You can eat the dish in three ways - on its own, with condiments such as green peppercorns, wasabi and nori flakes (points off for wasabi paste rather than grated from fresh), or in rice soup fashion with the dashi.
Dessert is a parfait (S$12) made by the laziest pastry chef ever - green tea pannacotta layered with sticky mochi balls, cornflakes, green tea ice cream, red bean paste and two matcha flavoured Glico Pocky sticks. Cornflakes? You can just imagine him or her putting this together with whatever ingredients were lying within arm's reach.
Whether Uya or Man Man becomes the eventual winner in this unagi race, we don't know. But for us, if it's between a reservation or a three hour wait, there's no contest.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
Our review policy: BT pays for all meals at restaurants reviewed on this page. Unless specified, the writer does not accept hosted meals prior to the review's publication