Classically, conservatively exquisite
by Christine Cunanan-Miki
Sometimes you find a good restaurant with a history so fascinating it merits equal billing with the food. The Fujiya restaurant of the Meiji-era Fujiya Miyanoshita Hotel in the hills of Hakone is one such place. The hotel was built in 1878 as Japan’s first Western-style inn, and its current flagship restaurant, with its graceful carvings and wooden ceiling painted with 600 species of Japanese wild plants, has been serving fine French dinners to dignitaries and ordinary mortals alike since the 1930s. Distinguished guests have included former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India, the Duke of Windsor when he was still Crown Prince Edward of England, Charlie Chaplin, Charles Lindbergh, Frank Lloyd Wright and the families of Generals Douglas MacArthur and Dwight Eisenhower. Helen Keller dined here on many evenings as well, and reportedly admired the Indian motifs on the walls; while John Lennon, who spent six months at the hotel (which rather surprised us — we wondered what he did with his time!), also supposedly enjoyed eating here.
A meal at the Fujiya is at once grand and genteel, harking back to a nostalgic era when time was savored rather than hurriedly spent, and evenings flowed gracefully through elaborate multi-course meals and equally elaborate conversation. Appropriately, the cooking itself is classic French, using only the most traditional ingredients and in a very ordinary way — resulting not in exciting cuisine but in very proper good food. It’s unapologetically conservative, and full of confidence that what has worked for over a century will keep doing so well into the next one.
My husband and I ordered the special seven-course Petite Merveille dinner, intrigued by the fact that Nobuyoshi Nakamura, the hotel’s sixth executive chef in 128 years, only accepts six orders each day. When I asked him why this was so, he practically sighed as he replied, “I can only do six a day because this menu takes so much time and effort to do.” Indeed, it tasted like a labor of love — although at ¥20,000 per head, it was not an inexpensive one. Nevertheless, it was a thoroughly enjoyable meal full of fresh and choice seafood. We started with a single plump oyster swimming in a vinaigrette sauce and then had raw scallops topped with caviar as an appetizer. The caviar was barely discernible, but the freshness of the scallops more than made up for this. For the main courses, Chef Nakamura sauteed tender lobster morsels in a crustacean cream sauce (creme de homard en cappuccino) and grilled to a tender pink a pair of lambchops that were first breaded in ground pistachio nuts (carre d’agneau en chapelure de pistache). However, my favorite part was dessert, which consisted of assorted red fruits sauteed in honey and served with a perfectly matched mascarpone cheese sorbet that would send strawberry cheesecake lovers into raptures.
The hotel is charmingly comfortable but it’s showing its age and has succumbed to some commercialism with souvenir kiosks in the lobby and advertisement posters in the oddest places. The restaurant itself, which was once a bastion of elegant dining, has also obviously seen better days. On the evening we were there, quite a few couples had dressed up for the experience in their best weekend wear, but one or two diners showed up in scruffy t-shirts — a sign of how things have changed. Nevertheless, this grand old lady of Hakone is just one place no history lover with a hankering for good old-fashioned food should miss.
WHAT TO EAT
The Fujiya’s bouillabaisse (¥6,000), sauteed trout (¥2,200) and beef stew (¥3,500) have been delighting customers for generations. For dessert, don’t miss out on the crepe suzette flambe (¥1,700) and seasonal fruits flambe (¥1,700) which are performed with expert flourish in front of you. And if you’re staying over, the crab omelette and home made read and jams included in the Fujiya breakfast (¥3,465) are a real treat the next morning.
WHAT TO DRINK
Start the evening with an extremely light and bubbly Brut de Canteneur champagne (¥1,700 per glass), which was made especially, for theFujiya hotel. For the rest of the meal, i recommend opening a bottle of Chateau Vieux Fortin 1995 (¥12,000), a full-bodied Saint Emilion Grand Cru with a wonderful bouquet to match. After the meal, head to the very British ‘Victoria’ bar for a nightcap and a game of darts.
WHERE TO SIT
For dinner and breakfast, the corner tables In the front portion of the dining room are best for viewing the beautiful room in the evening and the greenery outside in the morning. Resist any offers for tables at the back of the room – the interior and exterior views and the whole experience of sitting in this historical dining room are almost as important as the food. And in between courses, don’t forget to look up and admire the delicately painted flowers on the ceiling.
For those planning to slay overnight, I recommend reserving room 45 in the oldest building of the hotel, which has a comfortable seating area and great views. Charlie Chaplin and Frank Lloyd Wright were among this room’s previous occupants. Beatles fans can request John Lennon’s room in the hotel’s Flower Palate wing.
HOW MUCH DID IT COST
Plan on spending at least ¥ 30,000 for dinner and drinks for two.
WHO GOES THERE
The restaurant caters mainly to guests who are slaying at the hotel. On weekend nights there are two seatings at 5:45pm and at 8pm, the later time slot is taken up mostly by couples celebrating special occasions. The restaurant has had no shortage of distinguished clientele over the decades, however, and not a few foreign heads of state and royalty have spent an evening or two in this very room.
WHO TO ASK FOR
Patrick Carey, who works at the front desk, can help with arrangements, interpretation and also provide interesting tidbits about the restaurant and hotel.
Fujiya Miyanoshita Hotel
359 Miyanoshita, Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture