Act Two: Hitting the Marks
600 W. Lake St., Minneapolis; (612) 871-4055
Hours: lunch 11:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; dinner 5:00 p.m.-10:00 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 5:00 p.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 5:00 p.m.-9:00 p.m. Sunday; however, the restaurant is often open later, when crowds insist.
Ever crack open the paper and read, "Ellen Ellen Bobellen rose from bed Thursday, received her diploma from St. Abbatoir's School for Girls, and proceeded to plunge from a high cliff, thus proving that there are no second acts in American life?" I'll bet you haven't. Ever crack open the paper and encounter that phrase about how there are no second acts in American life and been immediately slapped across the face with the story of a second act--or a third or fifth? I'll bet you have, and I'll tell you what: There is nothing but second acts in American life.
You know what we don't have in American life? We have very few compelling five-act structures with a gripping cliffhanger at the end of Act Three, followed by a chance to use the bathroom and drink a stiff martini. But we do have that at Fuji Ya.
Act One began in 1959, when Reiko Weston opened a little 25-seat restaurant at Eighth Street and LaSalle Avenue for her parents, Kaoru and Nobuko Umetami, Japanese émigrés with a flair for cooking. The restaurant flourished. Act Two (working title: Prosperity) began in 1967, when Fuji Ya moved to a whopping 400-seat restaurant on the west bank of the Mississippi near the Stone Arch Bridge, setting the standard for Midwest Japanese cuisine. There was even a Fuji 2 in St. Paul. In 1988 the restaurant was forced from its location, and closed.
Act Three (New Beginnings) is set in 1998, when Carol Weston Hanson, daughter and granddaughter of the Fuji Ya originators, and husband Tom Hanson opened a new-generation Fuji Ya in an elegant bamboo-toned storefront on Lyndale Avenue and 27th Street. While the spot was embraced by patient well-wishers, it was plagued by service problems. By the time 2000 rolled around, Fuji Ya was suffering all of a restaurant's biggest trials: The sushi chef who built the place's great-but-slow reputation fled for richer pastures, taking his sideman with him; the parking lot seemed to get smaller and more convoluted with every passing day; and to add injury to insult, Fuji Ya lost its lease just as Minneapolis rents were skyrocketing.
What would happen to our heroine? Would young Fuji Ya be forced to squeegee windshields and sell matches in newly burgeoning Lyn-Lake?
Nah. Of course not. All it took was a chunk of capital and the vision to transform a former tire store on Lake Street between Lyndale and Garfield avenues into a complex both hip and polished.
Building the restaurant nearly from scratch has allowed Fuji Ya to neatly accomplish a number of highly desirable effects. For one, they've nearly doubled their kitchen area and increased their sushi and kitchen staff, additions that have, on my recent trio of visits, erased their heretofore ceaseless service troubles. For another, they have a 40-some-seat bar area, a China-red and gold room where a half-moon sushi bar and long, tall regular bar face off over cozy little tables. These tables are perfect for sharing a drink, be it a glass of sake from an expanded list, or a martini and a few appetizers, or sushi, an invaluable addition to greater Uptown life. For another, Fuji Ya is on the south edge of one of the vast new Lyn-Lake parking fields. There's so much parking, you could hold a family reunion in the bar. If you had a particularly hip family, that is.
If your family is less martini-and-maki than tempura-and-green-tea, there's a large, spacious dining room, given a modern air by sculptural geometric tree cutouts, flanked by three zashiki rooms, perfect for intimate groups. (Or dining with toddlers. They love being table-high, and they can fall asleep on the floor without fear of being stepped on.)
On my recent visits, I found food at Fuji Ya to be better than I remembered it. I was particularly dazzled by an order of grilled yellowtail cheek (hamachi kama, $7.25). Here the tender curve of fish between gill and body is salted and grilled until it boasts a hatchwork of black grill marks. Each bite distills the essence of hamachi, the white California tuna, without one unnecessary addition. A bowl of udon noodles with vegetable tempura ($6.95 at lunch, $11.50 at dinner, vegan at special request) delivered fat, tender noodles in a delicious broth next to a mound of lacy, greaseless tempura made with a nice assortment of vegetables, including sugary, nutty slices of acorn squash. A plate of mixed oshinko ($4.75) was a generous assortment of sweet, dry cucumber pickles, squash, tangy burdock, and absolutely beautiful ink-black mushroom pickles.
All the Fuji Ya favorites remain unchanged: Steamed pork shumai dumplings in a wasabi wrapper ($5.95) are still appealingly sweet and hot; harumaki, vegetarian egg rolls with a spicy mustard sauce ($3.95), are still salty and earthy. All the sushi I tried was flawless, if not fabulous. Fuji Ya co-owner Tom Hanson says the sturdy state of Fuji Ya's sushi should be credited to chef J.R., who has been running the sushi bar for a year now. Sake, or salmon ($4.25 for two pieces), was the best I tried, but I've noticed that salmon all over town has been particularly good for the last year--why is that?
Quibbling over the difference between flawless and fabulous is perhaps silly, and of interest only to the handful of local fanatics to which I belong, but suffice it to say the tuna sashimi with quail egg I had a few months ago at Sushi Sawatdee was magical, while that which I had at Fuji Ya was merely good. For a meal of pure sushi, I'd still rather go to the only-sit-at-the-sushi-bar Sushi Sawatdee or the truly strange sushi bar at Café della Vita. (I've now decided that the black granite palace most closely resembles a Milanese trillionaire's bathroom.) But for a meal with any other components, I'd rather go to Fuji Ya--especially if those components include beef or ice cream.
One night I tried the beef tenderloin with mushrooms (at $21.50, the most expensive dish available) and was delighted to find a tender filet mignon cooked to perfect temperature. The accompanying sauté of shiitake, enoki, and button mushrooms were a lovely counterpoint, and it's nice to have something for non-fish-eaters to splurge on. Desserts are mostly variations on Sonny's unbeatable ice creams: vanilla, green tea, or ginger (prices range from $3.25 for a bowl of ice cream, to $4.50 for deep-fried tempura ice-cream). It's not only an unbeatable idea, but a nice tip of the hat to Minneapolis excellence.
Another subtle love letter to Minneapolis living can be seen in the front bar at Fuji Ya. Surrounding one column is a sparkly gold vinyl booth, which is exactly like--in an inside-out, completely opposite way--one of the famed booths by the piano bar at Nye's Polonaise Room. Tom Hanson says his wife, Carol Weston Hanson, was adamant about incorporating a little bit of Nye's verve into the new place. "Carol loves Nye's. She loves those gold booths," he explains. "Whenever you're there you have such a good time. When it came around to designing the place, she said we had to have a booth like Nye's. And now we do."
I'm telling you, there are acts upon acts upon acts in American life, and you can eat the proof of it: It's grilled hamachi cheek served in a brand-new, third-generation Japanese restaurant situated in an old tire store where diners might sit on a reinterpretation of a Polish piano bar's celebration-of-post-WWII-prosperity booths.
THE GODS GIVETH, AND THEY TAKETH AWAY: But in Woodbury, they're just about coming out even. The Culinary School Café went under. That was the place that was both a cooking school and a nice restaurant. You watched the meal get prepared by some visiting, hoity-toity chef, and then you ate a plated dinner. Dinner and a show, but different. Yet somewhere in Woodbury, beloved St. Paul Italian deli and wine shop Buon Giorno is preparing to open a second location. Woodbury has lost the secrets to frenching a rack of lamb but gained the daily presence of wonderful sandwiches, sausages, and wine: Poor Woodbury.
Mark Marchionda, the general manager/buyer for the downtown St. Paul Buon Giorno, says the new location will have all the good points of the original Buon Giorno, but with added conveniences--like enough room to swing a cat in. Fans of this Italian deli know that it's legendarily cramped. That this jam-packed aspect was anything but charming had never occurred to me, but Marchionda ripped the scales from my eyes. Buon Giorno's always impressive wine selection represents a fraction of what he actually owns. "Here's an example," says Marchionda, "the '96 Barolo and '96 Barbaresco are two of the greatest vintages of the century, and a lot of what I've got doesn't even touch the shelves. I carry 20 Barolo. Maybe 10 see the shelves. The rest go to my best customers." Who are these privileged souls? Maybe as few as 20 dedicated collectors, says Marchionda, and another few dozen passionate Italophiles. So will the new Buon Giorno mean the rest of us will have an easier time getting at the rare wines, or less of a wait for prosciutto at Christmas? Only time will tell.
MEANWHILE, THE GODS GIVETH TO STILLWATER: An establishment very similar to the Culinary School Café has opened in the Grand Garage building in downtown Stillwater. It's a cooking school called the Chef's Gallery, and it holds both cooking demonstrations and participatory classes. (But don't assume you'll get a full, plated meal for your troubles; the Web site makes a point of mentioning you may want to eat before their classes.) Some upcoming classes include, on the cheap side, a $22 lunch where you'll learn how to make two versions of crab cakes (11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. Friday, February 23), and, on the steeper side, a $75 benefit for Kids Café, during which Chino Latino's Michael Larson will teach participants how to make "hot zone" dishes like tuna tataki (seared ahi tuna with lemon, soy, sesame, and kaiware) and "Peruvian Jumping Chicken" (6:00-9:00 p.m. Saturday, February 24). The Chef's Gallery; 324 S. Main St., Stillwater; (651) 351-1144; www.thechefsgallery.com. Buon Giorno, 335 University Ave. E., St. Paul; (651) 224-1816.
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