It’s been more than a year since chef Teppei Yamashita opened Singapore’s first casual live freshwater eel restaurant, Man Man Japanese Unagi Restaurant. Since then, the joint has won a Michelin Bib Gourmand award and unveiled a second outlet at Duo Galleria. We’re surprised that no one has tried to replicate its success – but, finally, there’s a new contender on the scene. Uya Singapore, like Man Man, offers rice bowls crowned with eels slaughtered and grilled on-site. But the question on everybody’s mind is: how does it compare?
While the sight of live eels flopping around in their tanks and the pungent smell of burning charcoal are the first things that hit you when you enter Man Man, there’s none of that at Uya. The tateba in which the eels are kept is partially hidden from view and the restaurant is so well ventilated. The clean, contemporary design of Uya’s dining hall is also a welcomed change from Man Man’s small space crammed with tables. There’s also a semi-private dining area, private rooms to the side of the restaurant and perhaps its best edge – Uya takes reservations so you won't have to waste time in the queue.
Sight and smell aside, we’re really here for the taste. We order the signature Hitsumabushi ($35/$48), a rice bowl served with chopped chunks of fleshy unagi served with a side of condiments like spring onions, seaweed and fresh wasabi, dashi and miso soup. You’re meant to eat it four ways: first plain, then with condiments, next with the bonito, kombu and yuzu dashi and finally, whichever way you please. The eels are from a Japanese wholesaler that’s been in the biz for over 90 years and come from Japan, Taiwan or China, depending on what’s available. They're cooked Kansai-style where the eels are first grilled without sauce and then with the tare for a caramalised finish. The result is a sweet and smokey piece of fish with a brittle exterior you crack through to reveal the eel’s firm, white flesh – firm because the meat doesn’t yield as easily to our chopsticks as we’d expect. And we also find the tare a tad too cloying, masking the taste of the eel. So in a battle of taste, our vote would still have to go to Man Man.
But don’t get us wrong. That doesn’t mean that Uya’s version of the dish is bad – the differences are marginal and unlike its competitor, Uya also offers other dishes such as a tempura ($23), sashimi ($23) and wagyu rice bowls ($27) so you can drag your non-unagi loving dining companions along without a worry.
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