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When it comes to Japanese food, everyone has a favourite story to tell. I distinctly remember one particular trip to Tokyo, not too long ago. Wandering around the Uchi-Kanda district in Chiyoda after a visit to the elusive Ghibli Museum, we swooped into a quiet six-seater restaurant for a short respite from the rain. Little did we know—and much to our luck—we had unwittingly stumbled across an excellent establishment, the home of an accomplished unagi donburi recipe that was prepared to perfection, and one which would set standards high for all unagi donburi dishes to come.
Also known as unadon, the humble unagi donburi is perhaps one of Japan’s most underrated food exports. It is claimed that the unadon was actually the first type of Japanese donburi rice dish, invented in the late Edo period in Sakai-machi (now Nihonbashi in present-day Tokyo). Centred around a bowl of steamed pearl rice topped with fillets of grilled eel prepared kabayaki-style (蒲焼; a special Japanese preparation of fish and eel, where the fish is butterflied down the back), the secret is in its tare (垂れ; dipping sauces used in grilling), a caramelised sweetened soy sauce-based glaze. There are no bells and whistles to the plain unagi donburi, but its rich, umami flavours have the ability to curl toes in absolute foodgasm.
In Hong Kong, the unagi donburi may not have received the fanfare enjoyed by other Japanese dishes, but there is a small and growing appreciation for it. Join us as we uncover the best restaurants in Hong Kong for unagi donburi.
Sure, the name’s a bit of a mouthful, so we’ll just go with what most patrons call this popular Japanese export: Nadai Unatoto. If the brand didn’t already give it away, Nadai Unatoto specialises in all things unagi, done the traditional way over a charcoal-raked grill for an irresistible, smoky aftertaste. For the signature grilled double eel rice bowl ($108), its meticulous preparation results in a melt-in-your-mouth texture for the thick fillets, paired with a sweet glaze. If one serving doesn’t sate your appetite, opt for the deluxe grilled eel rice bento box ($158) for the ultimate indulgence.
Casual Aussie-inspired café Ninetys might not be the first place you think of for unagi donburi in Hong Kong, but that’s precisely where this minimalistic Western coffee shop excels in catching you by surprise. Its teriyaki eel rice ($158), a grilled eel served on pearl barley and topped with sesame seeds and rice crackers, is among their recommended dishes on the menu, and it mimics Japanese aesthetics with its charming wooden box plating—a modern take on the traditional bento box. While not as authentic as other more conservative Japanese outlets, it’s still a masterpiece of umaminess.
Donburi wonderchild Superdon offers up all things bowl food, and aside from their trove of signature sashimi donburi, they also have a premium grilled eel rice bowl ($88) to please unadon lovers. Served atop a bed of fluffy Japanese rice with a dusting of nori, a side of pickled vegetables, and a glistening fillet of glaze-brushed eel, the savoury notes meld together beautifully with the tender meat for a full sensory experience. We would recommend to tip the generous sweet tare pooling up within the dips of grilled eel into the rice for a thorough blending of flavours.
What used to be a stand-alone unagi concept has fused with a Japanese self-service stone grill dining brand, birthing the culinary collaboration that is Ya Rou Stone x Unagi Koubou. While the heated lava slab steaks are certainly worth a visit, we’ve only got eyes on the unagi donburi, and Unagi Koubou does not disappoint with their menu. Whether you’re in the mood for a three kinds eel don ($238), featuring the triple threat of unagi, anago, and raw grilled eel, or you’re more than happy with a conventional whole classic grilled eel don ($118), Unagi Koubou can rise to the challenge, packing their rounded bento boxes with hunks upon hunks of sesame seed-dusted grilled unagi.
Ya Rou Stone x Unagi Koubou, Shop 4, G/F, The Grandeur, 48 Jardine’s Crescent, Causeway Bay | (+852) 8481 9684
This collection of speciality coffee roasters has made a name for itself across Hong Kong with its industrial open-plan design and communal tables that are perfect for an afternoon of getting work done away from the real office or home office. Spacious and welcoming, their cold nitro coffees are particularly worth nothing, but when it comes to food, the triple-decker kabayaki eel rice with scrambled eggs ($118) remains our favourite choice. Served with pillowy pockets of scrambled eggs and generous smatterings of nori and green onions, the grilled eel fillets are thick and luscious, brushed in a tongue-tingling tare glaze that’s not overly saccharine, making it a lunchtime favourite at Sensory Zero.
Judging by the legions of fans that Mamaday has won since its opening, we would say that this casual dining concept is everything but “just all right,” a notion that defies its namesake, the non-committal Cantonese phrase “麻麻哋.” In fact, its Just Alright unagi omurice ($112) is the perfect example of just how well Mamaday surpasses expectations. For its unagi donburi, a whole grilled eel fillet is sprinkled in shredded nori and placed atop a bed of silken, runny eggs and short-grained rice that soaks up sweet tare and meat juices alike, with a ring of bonito flakes to finish it off. As delicious as it is Instagrammable, it’s clear to see that Mamaday has a winner on its hands. Be sure to book ahead—walk-in tables are almost impossible to be had.
New joiner Taku has only been around the scene for a few weeks, but its classic iteration of grilled eel rice ($120) is already making waves amongst the Sheung Wan lunch crowd—including the Localiiz office! Presented in an elongated rectangular bento box made of dried bamboo, Taku dishes up its unagi donburi with a generous layer of pearl rice and a hefty slab of perfectly marinated and grilled eel, with just the right amount of toothsome tare to coat the unagi. It’s as simple as it comes, but it sure does hit the spot if you are craving comforting flavours. Do note Taku is quite small with only a few seats available for dine-in.
Taku, G/F, 36 Jervois Street, Sheung Wan | (+852) 5104 7178
We’ll admit, it’s difficult to stomach forking out over $400 for an unagi donburi lunch set, but the one at Sumiya (炭家) is worth tasting at least once. As the most expensive unagi don on our list, Sumiya puts its money where its mouth is and serves up a tongue-tingling kayabaki unagi rice set ($420) that will make your taste buds and wallet cry in joy and in sorrow, respectively. Helmed by a native Japanese chef with more than 40 years of experience, Sumiya is dedicated to bringing the authentic flavours of charcoal-grilled Kansai eel to Hong Kong through a range of classic eel dishes. For example, this boutique restaurant is one of the few places—if not the only—to serve shirayaki-style unagi, wherein the eel is roasted without the tare and seasoned only with salt to showcase the full, genuine flavours of the premium eel as the highlight of the dish.
Sumiya (炭家), G/F, 24 Gough Street, Central
Few places in Hong Kong exude effortlessly chic and energetic izakaya vibes as well as Okra, and the food and drinks here do not disappoint, either. Creative mastermind and chef Max Levy, a New Orleans native, serves up a dish called the Unagi Fun ($188), where freshwater eel meets charcoal grill for an explosion of flavour. Served with crispy sushi rice and house-fermented pickles, it’s a modern take on the traditional unagi donburi, boasting bold and sophisticated qualities in every bite. Be warned: From our personal experience, one bowl of the stuff is never enough to pacify our insatiable cravings so we usually opt for two.
Okra, 110 Queen’s Road West, Sai Ying Pun | (+852) 2806 1038