This dish is relatively unknown to Pittsburgh, but a new restaurant in Lawrenceville is serving up the satisfying bowls, and doing so with gusto. Oishii Donburi opened early this year on Butler Street in Upper Lawrenceville and serves donburi bowls, curry, bibimbap, salads, and more. I ordered take-out, but the space has a sleek and clean feel, with a modern bar and soft lighting.
The take-out took nothing away from the donburi, however, which was one of the best take-out meals I have had during the pandemic.
I started with a tacoyaki, aka battered and fried octopus balls. They were gooey, chewy, rich, and with a surprisingly big chunk of octopus. No skimping. Which is great, I want to know I am eating octopus, and it was well cooked too, and not overly chewy. The balls were a bit soggy, but that’s probably because I had a 20-minute ride home after picking up my meal.
The tacoyaki were a nice start, but my donburi was the star. I ordered the unagi bowl, which came with an appetizing portion of barbecue eel. Some might scoff at the idea of eel as a main dish — or as a dish at all — but they shouldn’t. Cooked eel is succulent, meaty, slightly salty and sweet, and absolutely delicious. Oishii’s unagi checked all those boxes. It was sublime.
The fish was fatty and rich and sliced perfectly. Barbecued in a soy sauce base known as kabayaki, which is similar to teriyaki, it was salty and a tad sweet. It falls apart easily just with a slight push of your chopsticks. Dissecting each bit to my liking was a breeze. The black skin of the eel was loaded with flavor.
Whenever it felt like the eel might be too much — too rich, too sweet, or too fatty — I just grabbed a tiny bit of yellow pickled root vegetable, pink ginger, red chutney, or lime green wasabi. The sour, sweet, or hot brings the palate back into balance, not to mention providing a satisfying crunch. All of that was laid over some slightly al-dente steamed rice, marinated in that soy sauce base.
Bright colors were everywhere. I ordered the seaweed salad as a side, which was neon green and beautiful. The salad also worked as a great palate cleanse with a refreshing flavor of the coast. Like walking over a tide pool. And the meal all together kind of looks like that too.
If you don’t like eel, there are more than a dozen donburi options, including shrimp tempura, salmon sashimi, sliced beef, fried tofu, and more. I tried a few bites of my girlfriend’s katsu pork, which was crispy and tender, if a little bit dry. But that was made up for by being covered in a thick, spicy, and almost cinnamon-brown sugar-like curry sauce.
Non-sushi Japanese food is trending a bit in Pittsburgh, and there are plenty of great spots, but not all of them satisfy. Oishii Donburi does, easily. It’s one of my new favorite spots in the city.
5227 Butler St., Lawrenceville. Tue.-Sat. 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-9 p.m. oishiidonburi.com