“Oh my god, it’s still moving,” whispers our dining companion. “No way, it has already been deboned,” we reply weakly, averting our gaze from the unfortunate eels destined for our plate. But we sneak a peek through the glass-walled kitchen anyway. To our horror, the heads (inexplicably still left on) of the filleted creatures on the chopping board flap up and down in slow motion. Their bodies continue to twitch intermittently even when skewered and placed on the blazing charcoal grill. Gag. Dining at Teppei Yamashita’s fortnight-old Man Man Unagi Restaurant should come with a warning: sit at the counter facing the kitchen only if you can stomach gore. Otherwise, cower at the tables some distance away.
As carnivores and voracious eaters of unagi, we realise it’s hypocritical to be squeamish about seeing animals being killed for food. But man (oh, man), these eels sure seem to die a slow, painful death. Yet, this is apparently how it has been conventionally done for decades in eel houses in Japan. The messy task of slaughtering and grilling eels here is expertly handled by cheerful head chef Nakagawa, 39 (above), formerly from Teppei’s sister yakitori restaurant Hana-Hana. He had also worked for over two decades in an unagi eatery near Nagoya. He grabs a writhing eel, drives a nail into its head and deftly splits its body in half with a knife, removing the innards and bones in one seamless motion. There is blood everywhere. And this happens each time there’s a new batch of orders (dead eels don’t stay fresh for long). All this means Man Man is super serious about its unagi. The only other eel specialist in Singapore is Chikuyotei at InterContinental Singapore, which also imports live eels but doesn’t showcase the creatures or its slaughtering process.
THE LOOK: Man Man is located at the back of The Working Capitol. Thankfully we booked our seats early, ’cos at press time, reservations for dinner are full for two weeks. If you want to dine here on a whim, drop by for lunch (walk-ins only) at 11.30am when the store opens, “otherwise, you’ll have to queue,” says the nice Japanese waitress. Unlike Teppei’s other cramped, badly ventilated restaurants, we are pleasantly surprised by the spaciousness of this neat, casual-Zen space, the fanciest in the chef’s F&B group. Large tanks filled with the wriggling snake-like fish sit by the entrance. They are imported twice weekly from the eel-farming town of Isshiki at Mikawa Bay in Aichi Prefecture, where Nagoya is its capital. The sweeping kitchen anchored by a long binchotan charcoal grill looks mighty impressive. A glass wall keeps the smoke and pong away from the dining room. It’s all quite dramatic and charming. Until the slaughtering starts — something we’ve never seen even in unagi specialists eateries in Nagoya and Tokyo, which tend to look more understated and posh.
THE FOOD: Unagi is generally prepared two ways: Kanto-style where it’s lightly grilled, steamed, then basted with sauce and grilled again till moist and fluffy. Or Kansai-style, where the fillets are dipped in sauce then immediately grilled for a lightly crunchy yet yielding mouthfeel. The eels here are cooked the latter way. And you’d better love eel, ’cos the menu here is 90 per cent unagi, served with or without sauce, in varying portions. The modestly-sized signature Hitsumabushi ($26.80) is surprisingly affordable, given how expensive live eels usually are. Teppei-san says he managed to secure a good price from his supplier. Hitsumabushi is a Nagoya version of the delicacy, where chopped eel drizzled with teriyaki-esque sauce is served in a wooden tub of rice, with spring onions, seaweed strips, wasabi (which you’re expected to grate yourself here), plus bonito and kombu dashi on the side. There’s a method to this. First, scoop out a portion of rice and eel into the empty bowl provided and enjoy. Next, garnish your second helping with the condiments and eat. For the third portion, add both the garnishes and salty broth for a porridge-like texture. Lastly, gobble up your remaining portion the way you deem yummiest. We only know exactly what to do ’cos we’ve had this dish before in Nagoya — our server tonight isn’t crystal clear with her instructions. Honestly? We like Step 2 best, but no big deal if you eat it any old way. The unagi has a good smoky char and faint crackle, and its rich brown sauce lends an appetising savoury-sweet contrast. But the flesh is not as tender as its plumper, juicier counterparts in Japan. The Kimo Don ($24.80), a rice bowl with unagi and its liver is not our favourite. The livers, which look like creepy little aliens, are kinda bitter. But the Yamagata rice grains are glossy and deliciously chewy. The unerring freshness of the eel shines in the Shirayaki ($24.80), grilled sans sauce, and simply served with salt for sprinkling. It’s clean-tasting, not muddy like inferior unagi and has a lovely sear. But again, the eel could be softer, and it’s also a bit dry without any sauce. Is it overcooked? Or simply the nature of the eels imported here? Perhaps the once-luscious creatures from Japan suffered weight loss and stress during their journey to Singapore? We can only speculate.
VERDICT: ***1/2 The fact that Man Man is able to import live Japanese eels and showcase them while keeping prices reasonable for a traditionally expensive treat isn’t something to be scoffed at. But while the unagi here is tasty, it lacks succulence. Teething problems in the kitchen rather than an issue with the quality of the fish, we hope. P.S. Don’t sit near the prep station if you aren’t into horror movies. $$
#01-01, 1 Keong Saik Rd, S089109. Tel: 6222-0678 (no reservations for lunch). Open daily except Sun. Mon–Sat 11.30am–3pm; 6pm–10.30pm. Last orders 30 mins before closing.