EVER been chauffer-driven to your restaurant by the very same person who brings you your food? Then been dropped home once you’re done? If not, then perhaps the Gentem Café, commonly known as the ‘Mongolian Tent’, could be worth a try.
The traditional Asian restaurant – along Route 343 on the outskirts of Hirafu in the South Village (‘B1’ on the Hirafu Village map) – is more of a traditional dining experience than simply somewhere to eat. You phone and make a booking, they pick you up, and at the end of the night take you home. Remove your shoes upon entering a Mongolian-style yurt, before lowering yourself onto throw cushions around circular, low-set timber tables. An iron belly burner at the door glows red and keeps the tent warm when it’s snowing outside. All the while, just remember to keep your mobile switched off to maintain the ambience and relaxed atmosphere. Then, just order and eat, while listening to tranquil world music being piped around the tent surrounds; but not before reading in the menu about the Japanese custom, ‘the charm charge’, which affords you a plate of shrimp crisps and, of course, some ‘charm’. These are all charming concepts, aren’t they? And all the while, this place manages to retain a family atmosphere and is very kid-safe. This unique and memorable experience is precisely what owner and creator Yoshi Onishi was aiming for when he opened the Gentem Café about 10 winters ago. “What we are trying to do is allow people to relax and enjoy themselves with good food, music and atmosphere,” says Yoshi, who moved the café from its old home in the Hirafu village, next to the Gondola Chalet, about five years ago.
Yoshi wishes he could claim bragging rights for coming up with the idea for Gentem’s points of difference. But in fact that came from his friend and creator of Niseko powder snowboard, the Gentemstick, Taro Tamai, who stayed in many yurts – portable, felt-covered, wood lattice-framed dwellings that are popularly used by nomads – for several years throughout Mongolia and Alaska.
In order to review the Gentem Café for Powderlife, a friend and I ate at the popular Niseko dining icon, and were only able to eat at around 9pm – so it is highly advised that you book in advance…and early. We started proceedings with entrees Tsukemori (pickled Niseko vegetables, ¥500) (incidentally, we challenge you to eat a soy bean with chopsticks), and Imo-Mochi (deep-fried, soft hashed potatoes with a spicy sweet chilli sauce, ¥500). For mains, we tried the thinly sliced fried samma, a typical Japanese salmon with a zesty lemon and fish sauce (¥800). Melt in your mouth stuff, it was, but we thought that may be the case, with Hokkaido’s reputation for quality seafood. Onto the second main, and we experienced our pick of the night, the Chu-Kara, which is fried chicken with vinegar dipping sauce (¥800). A little on the fatty side, but tender, juicy and good all-round, this one was the more ‘Western-friendly’ dish of the evening, and had a real Kernal’s herbs and spices flavour to it.
We decided to balance up the fish and meat servings with a rice-based dish, the Nashigo, a sweet and slightly spicy Indonesian-style fried rice and vegetables, covered in a fried egg (¥900). These meals were all washed down with a generous jug of Suntory beer (¥2000) (there is a comprehensive drinks menu, also including more beers, sake, liquor, wine, whiskey, cocktails and soft drinks). With the sweet tooths calling, it was soon time for dessert. So, after consulting with the always-friendly Yoshi, we happened upon the interesting zenzai (¥700), a Vietnamese concoction of sweet beans, fruits, coconut milk, tapioca and rice. This dessert may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but offers a different after-main course experience nonetheless.
Much of the food at Gentem Café will be considered quite Eastern by most tourist standards – but a change is as good as a holiday. However, there are plenty of ‘safe’ options on the menu for those who don’t wish to venture far from their comfort zones. And considering the quality of food, the service and the chauffer, the prices are right, too.
A nod must go out to the welcoming and on-the-ball staff for the night, Ayako and Ayae. It is obvious, and has been said before, but the West could take several leafs out of the East’s book on hospitality and customer service in general; Gentem’s was first-class and faultless.
Do yourself a favour and pay a visit to the Gentem Café. We’ve already established that you don’t need to bother getting behind the wheel. And it will offer a more traditional, experimental experience than some other dining spots in the thick of Hirafu’s central tourist strip. All in all, it provides a taste of the alternative and other-worldly flavours, which is probably why the Gentem Café attracts so many local Japanese as well. When the locals go there, you just know you’re onto a good thing.
For more information on the Gentem Café, or to make a booking, call 0136-23-3154.