This morning I visited Fuji Bakery’s new flagship, a blocky white building near where Elliott Avenue turns into 15th. I had my camera, eager to fill the blogs with shots of jewel-like pastries. Yeah, that didn't happen.
The long glass counter is still empty and the newly built wooden benches are stacked and upended. But in the expansive space in back, about six staff members—some Japanese, most not—are bustling around wielding sheets of croissants and strawberry-topped pastries and loaves of bread pebbled with cranberries. And, perhaps more importantly, they have my beloved curry bun, unobtainable around these parts since last summer.
I wrote a blog post last week about Fuji’s tentative return. I’ve driven by this building with its red and white sign plenty of times, monitoring its progress with one eye as I whiz down 15th Avenue. But none of it was real until that bun arrived on a paper plate.
Owner Akihiro Nakamura never baked professionally, but he arrives at the kitchen at 3am and spends most of his days wearing white tennis shoes and a matching white baker’s jacket and fretting about gluten content and whether his croissants are too light, which I still don’t believe is a real problem. Fuji’s Bellevue and International District locations amassed a significant fan base since opening in 2009, and Nakamura dismayed every last bit of it last summer when he temporarily closed his two Japanese-meets-French bakeries. The idea was to prepare this new, larger space at 1030 Elliott Ave W. All of Fuji’s wares will be baked here—the brioche cubes filled with salmon. The braided bacon epis. The ornate cakes and pear Danishes and croissants. But right now Nakamura is struggling to reconcile the delicate art of pastry with a new environment and a host of tempermental machines. The scrum of separators, mixers, ovens, and other bulky mechanics looks more like my dad’s workshop than a place where cunning pastries get made. Fuji’s original baker, Taka Hirai, is no longer with the company, and Nakamura is working with a consultant from Kyoto and gathering up some previous employees to work alongside new ones to breathe new life into all of his recipes.
Last weekend, Nakamura reopened the Bellevue and International District locations with a very limited menu of pastries and bread. He worried this was premature, but customers were asking and some rather unsavory activity was happening outside the corner storefront in the ID, so he felt he owed it to other local businesses to have a presence there once again. "Give us about two months," he says of the new location, which he had hoped might even open last week. Nakamura is reinvigorating his recipes one by one, starting with the white bread and croissants and moving on to sweeter creations. Having his consultant get here from Kyoto is a big part of that.
But for now, there are curry buns. The tennis ball-sized one Nakamura brought forth from the kitchen was freshly fried, and biting into it unleashed both a curl of steam and memories of sitting by the front windows of his ID shop with my mom, with visiting friends, or just by myself because I was running errands nearby and what the hell.
The dough felt a little lighter to the teeth and had a surge of sweetness; Fuji used to fill and tuck them by had, but now machines handle the volume; Nakamura says it makes the filling and folding more uniform. The combination of delicate dough exterior and heavy curry filling means about 10 percent of every batch doesn't survive the frying process. But this one did, and the breadcrumb-crunching exterior and that filling of gentle, savory curry was exactly what I remembered.