Day of the ox, year of the goat

This year, the Yoshino Restaurant in Lotte Legend Hotel Saigon is offering a special unagi meal through 30 July. Saigon is home to many wonderful Japanese restaurants, but when we entered the Yoshino Restaurant we knew we were in a special place. The Yoshino is a beautifully decorated restaurant where one can enjoy an exquisitely traditional Japanese meal. The sakura blossoms on the backlit ceiling are reflected in the mirror-like floor, and the ambience has the simplicity and elegance for which Japanese interiors are famous.

We were greeted by our hostess, Ms Nguyen Thi Dong Hai (Ms Julia) and invited to enjoy a wonderful variety of dishes made from unagi for lunch. 

I am a fan of Japanese cuisine, but had never eaten grilled unagi. Unagi is the Japanese word for freshwater eel, especially the Japanese eel.  It is different in taste and texture from anago (saltwater eels) and is a great favourite in Japanese cuisine. The unagi is rich in protein and vitamins and is considered a summer food that gives strength and stamina to face the hot, humid days. There is even a special day in July, the Day of the Ox, on which it is customary to eat unagi.

Photo provide by Lotte Legend Hotel Saigon

We began with a cold glass of Sapporo beer and a wonderful introduction to the tradition of eating unagi by Mr Johnny Peh, the restaurant manager and a legend among Japanese restaurateurs. Mr Peh worked for years with the Shangri La group and founded and managed restaurants in Singapore, Malaysia, China, and Hong Kong. His wife is Vietnamese and they have lived in Vietnam now for ten years. Mr Peh joked that he is the only Chinese who has made a career out of Japanese restaurants.

Our lunch arrived with the various dishes arranged clockwise, from the lightest foods to the heavier fare. We started in the upper right-hand corner with a light uzaku of cucumbers and seaweed simmered in rice vinegar and sweet sake in an unagi crust. Following was a wonderful flan-like dish made with fish stock and topped by a fillet of grilled unagi. For balance, there was a small dish of tsukemono, the Japanese pickled vegetables found at nearly every meal.

We followed with a clear soup made with fish stock, seaweed and colourful vegetables. Mr Peh personally served us clear sake especially imported from Japan. It had a wonderful dry aftertaste and I enjoyed two glasses ‘bottoms up’ style. Later in the meal, Mr Peh also served a cloudy sake with a sweet aftertaste.

The pièce de résistance was the Unadon, a donburi-style dish of steamed rice topped with fillets of grilled unagi prepared in the kabayaki style. The eels are first grilled, then steamed to remove excess fat, then coated in a sweet sauce and grilled a second time to caramelize the sauce and make the skin crisp. The result is a dish to please even the most discerning palates. To accompany this, we were served a marvellous dish made from unagi, eggs, burdock root and onions. 

Photo provide by Lotte Legend Hotel Saigon

The meal ended with Vietnamese coffee and a bowl of black sesame ice cream. Afterwards, we brought out our cameras for photos with our charming and vivacious host and hostess.

For those concerned with the zodiac, the day of the ox in the year of the goat is considered an inauspicious time, since both are strong earth signs that tend to clash. Add to it that this is a yin wood year and the recipe for disaster is complete. However, wood also stands for the quality of kindness, and a yin wood year holds out the possibility for compromise, flexibility and creativity. So I decided to compromise and adopt the Japanese designation of the year as the Year of the Sheep. Hopefully, this July the sky will be as gentle as a lamb and send us cloudy days and cooling rain. But just in case, I am going back to Yoshino Restaurant for more unagi.

Photo provide by Lotte Legend Hotel Saigon

Lotte Legend Hotel Saigon

2A-4A Ton Duc Thang St, Ben Nghe Ward, Dist.1, Ho Chi Minh City

Tel: (08) 3823-3333


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