Manchester's Umezushi is the very definition of a hidden gem. Tucked away down a dingy back alley behind Victoria train station, the low-key Japanese restaurant has just 18 covers, but the kind of word-of-mouth rep and national press plaudits money can't buy.
By far, Umezushi's most popular dish is unagi, a serving of glazed and grilled freshwater eel that undergoes a remarkably complex preparation process before it hits the plate.
Freshwater eel can be toxic if not cooked correctly, so most Japanese restaurants in the UK buy it pre-made and simply microwave before serving. Umezushi owner Terry Huang and kitchen manager Omar, however, prefer to prepare it from scratch. Together they have developed a constantly evolving unagi-making process that combines long-standing Japanese customs with modern technology.
"The basis of our cooking method is certainly traditional," says Huang. "But we made our own adaptation to suit our kitchen."
It begins by placing live eels into ice cold water.
"This puts them into hibernation mode," says Omar. "They are basically sleeping and won't move. We used to use sake, but we realised ice works better."
Once subdued, the eels are taken from the water and killed with a swift blow from a knife to the base of the head. Thankfully, this is more humane than it sounds.
"We cut the connection between the head and the body to instantly kill it, so the eel doesn't feel any pain," says Huang.
After leaving the eels to bleed out to get rid of the fishy metallic taste, the spinal cord is removed using a process called ikejime. This preserves the quality of the meat by slowing down the process of rigor mortis. For this, somewhat surprisingly, an industrial compressor is wheeled out. It would traditionally be done with a wire, but the compressor greatly speeds up the process.
It is also extremely noisy, meaning the restaurant has to close every Monday so the spinal cords can be processed without disturbing the diners. The whole restaurant, kitchen included, is probably about the size of your living room.
Spine removed, the eels are then blanched in hot water for a few minutes before being plunged into fresh ice water. This helps loosen the protective coating, enabling the slime to be easily scraped off.
The eels are then filleted and the heads and bones set to one side to use for making the sauce. These fillets are covered with nikiri sauce and poached in a tin, separated into layers using parchment paper, for around 30 to 40 minutes. They are then marinaded in a fresh batch of sauce and refrigerated for 24 hours.
This sweet sticky nikiri sauce is the crux of the dish. To make it, the eel bones and heads are roasted in an oven for around three hours at 150 degrees Celsius. This reduces any excess water and serves to concentrate the eel flavour. The bones and any resulting stock are then mixed with a base of soy, saké, mirin, sugar, and water and simmered for four to six hours.
"The key is to cook the sauce in a clay pot," reveals Huang. This mixture is then sieved and added to the existing nikiri sauce.
"The sauce should only be topped up and never replaced," says Huang. "This is so the flavour is accumulated over time, and therefore unique to each restaurant. We've been topping up our sauce for over three years now, but it is still a baby sauce compared to some of the restaurants in Japan that have over 200 years of history."
Finally, the eel fillets are ready for grilling. This is done over charcoal at the beginning of each day. The end result is a delicacy with such incredible depth of flavour, one bite immediately justifies the hours and hours spent preparing it. Indeed, according to Umezushi front-of-house manager Joshua, many diners return specifically for this dish.
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"I haven't yet come across another Japanese restaurant in the UK that prepares eels from scratch like we do," says Huang. "But I can't claim that there aren't any. Knowing the Japanese culture, there may well be some hidden gems, only known to a certain community that specialises in unagi."
While Umezushi isn't quite this elusive, it isn't far off. Despite the critical acclaim and popularity with diners, there are no plans to move to larger or more high-profile premises. It's Manchester's answer to the secret backstreet restaurants of Japan that spend years refining dishes, and its tiny home down an unassuming alley way is the perfect fit.
All photos by Eddy Gosht.