In the 1970s Tom Miller, being a movie publicist, received a number of invitations to pre-release screenings, often at a Twentieth Century Fox screening room then located far west on Fifty-Sixth Street, almost at the Hudson River. From time to time I would meet him there for a six o’clock screening after coming down from Columbia, Tom coming up either from his apartment or from wherever he might have been working at the time.
There was a Japanese restaurant named Fuji on West 56 Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, and in his early days in New York Tom had lived in a top floor walkup above the restaurant, which had opened in 1956. Tom had not dined there in many years. One night we tried the restaurant. It was good. Pleasant people, pleasant surroundings. Nice place for a post-screening meal. All we knew about Japanese food was sukiyaki and teriyaki, and on our initial visits that is what we ordered. Well, that can get a bit tiresome after a while.
The next several times we did try the multi-course dinner, and sometimes one of us would get the vegetarian version just to introduce more variety. Always whatever was available on the dinners was delicious, wonderfully prepared, served with a wonderful balance between friendly and reserved.
Karen, we learned, was the daughter of the co-owner of the restaurant, Pat Takei, Mama-San. She and her partner in the enterprise, Ohta-San, lived above the restaurant in the apartment once occupied by Tom. Pat was a Japanese woman who had lived through the bombing of Tokyo and after the war had married a Polish-American soldier with the last name Yackanich. When we first became acquainted with Pat, she and her husband were separated. Karen had two brothers, one of whom looked to me more Polish than not, the other much more Japanese. Karen seemed somewhere in between.
Karen was married to Lou Castioni, a wonderful man small in stature but large in heart who also worked in the restaurant, sometimes in the kitchen and sometimes up front tending bar. Lou it turned out was Italian, the son of parents born in Italy.
Somehow, quietly and almost by accident, all of these people became our close friends.
We drank Rob Roys in those days, and Pat could make the most fabulous Rob Roy ever. She began sending us our first one on the house, and of course we’d order another. The polite thing to do. Since each one was basically a double, we were getting more than our day’s normal allotment of Scotch. And if our friends Carlos and Irene also happened to be there, they would often send over yet another one on their tab. Would you believe me if I said that some evenings we were not certain exactly how we got home? Especially if there was some sake along the way or a complimentary shot of plum wine at the end.
Pat (and Karen and Lou too, for that matter) would often send us out a bit of something new to us. Here’s something new on the menu and we wanted you to have a taste. And always it was delicious.
Ben Stiller was there from time to time, usually with his parents the also famous Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara. One Monday evening in 1986, having the day before seen the younger Stiller in the revival of John Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves at Lincoln Center, I dared stop by their table to congratulate him on his performance. Ms. Meara spoke up: “You know, I was in the original Off-Broadway production in 1971.”
It was a favorite restaurant of the young Diane Lane, with whom Tom was working during the filming of Coppola’s The Cotton Club. She stopped by our table one night during that time, and when Tom suggested planting a column item about her being at Fuji, she exclaimed, “Please don’t! This is my favorite restaurant because people let me alone!”
One night Ginger Rogers and a companion were dining there. Tom had run into her at the Hollywood Canteen during the Second World War, and when he had asked her to dance, she had begged to sit that one out with him since her feet hurt from rehearsing all day with Hermes Pan. I urged Tom to greet her with the reminder, but wisely, I guess, he elected not to disturb the lady. Jane Powell was there a couple of times, looking remarkably like her younger self.
One night Melvin Van Peebles was there. We had seen his Broadway musical Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death back in 1971. The man still looked good and he still looked badasss. His handsome (might I say beautiful) son Mario was with him, someone else Tom worked with on The Cotton Club. I was able to tell Van Peebles Senior that I much preferred his musical to another much tamer Black musical that had subsequently swept the Tony Awards.
I cannot begin to tell you how great the food was. When we first experienced the restaurant, sushi and sashimi were prepared in the kitchen to order and brought out, and you could count on a good sampling on the multi-course dinner feasts. Later on they constructed a sushi bar up front, and while occasionally we dined there, most of the time we preferred tables where we could sit across from each other and talk.
The vegetables were superb. I loved the three incredibly crisp asparagus spears brought out with a mirin-flavored crab-accented dipping sauce. And in the spring, the wonderfully crisp fiddlehead fern in their delicately vinegary sauce. And the appetizer with shrimp and thinly sliced Japanese cucumber.
Their miso soup was absolutely wonderful. And that reminds me of their Shabu-Shabu, all that incredibly thin-sliced beef which along with the wonderful vegetables you’d dip into the hot broth with your chopsticks to cook, the whole process making the broth even better and then you could add that broth to your rice bowl. Oh, those were the days.
And their tempura. Best I’ve ever had. The vegetable as well as the seafood. One of the real treats for me was one year when they had fresh young okra pod tempura. Young and fresh whole pods. Boy, was that good!
One of the great treats connected with being friends with the folks at Fuji was that Pat gave the most marvelous traditional American Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts at the restaurant for staff and family and special friends. Tom and I were always invited. A great time would be had by all in attendance, and the booze flowed freely. I don’t know where she learned it but her turkey was as good as it gets. Ditto the dressing and everything else.
One night when Tom was out of town and I was there by myself, Karen mentioned that they had pork sashimi as a special. Sounded scary, but I was curious. It turned out to be a thick hunk of pork fat that had been baked for many hours at a low temperature that allowed all the fat to ooze out and left a delicate and delicious membrane filled with pockets of air. Special, all right.
Somewhere along the way I ran across an article in the New York Times by one of the big restaurant reviewers that sang the praise of several of the truly great New York dining spots. But then he closed by saying that some of the best dining you could get in New York would be at a smaller, less famous, less pretentious establishment where the chefs and the staff knew you and you knew them. I’m certain that something like that came into play in Tom’s and my great fondness for Fuji. Dining at Fuji regularly was one of the great experiences of my life.
Pat and Ohta-San had sold the restaurant to a new owner, and all my old friends who had loved it found it okay but not like Pat’s Fuji and they all abandoned it. A restaurant with the name Fuji still stands at the old location, and some of the photos do resemble at least a bit the old Fuji, although more garish. But don’t go there thinking you will find the restaurant I had described. I’m sure it is good. Just as sure it would not be my Fuji.
By the time I left New York Karen had already left to seek her fortune in New Mexico, her husband Lou remaining at Fuji for a time. This was another married couple, like Harry and Pat Charvat when I was sixteen, with whom I fell in love. They had a daughter who is now a doctor. As happens sometimes, the long-distance marriage did not work out, and Karen and Lou ultimately split up. Just like the Charvats. Both of them ended up living in the Albuquerque area, no doubt in part so they both could participate in the raising of their daughter. In later life, Pat left New York and moved west to be with Karen. There was talk of their visiting us in Sawyerville on some cross-country trip, but that never happened.
Pat died early in 2010. News of her death hit hard. Such a strong, wonderful woman. It is hard to believe that she is gone.
I have no photos of Fuji back in the day. I can’t find any on the internet. The plate at the beginning and end of this post is the gift that Pat game me as a present with I left New York. These plates may be a dime a dozen at Japanese markets, but for me mine is priceless. I use it at least once a week, usually with something I cn eat with chopsticks. And I think of days gone by.
I am grateful that I got to know her, Ohta-San, Karen, Lou, and others at Fuji. I will never forget them or the restaurant.