FREEDOM Inn’s artistic French and Italian-inspired cuisine simply looks too good to eat – like a painting on a plate. Not eating this exquisite food is simply an impossible task, though, courtesy of the meals tasting even better than they look. Quite the predicament: to eat, or to sit there and just stare?
“My first introduction to Japan was through the food,” Freedom Inn’s proprietor, Cliff Bernstein, tells Powderlife. “What the Japanese teach you about cooking is you eat with your eyes, then with your mouth.”
Pulling up outside the modest Freedom Inn – a close five minutes from the Hanazono ski slopes, on the outskirts of Niseko – my dining partner and I had not an idea of the treats that lay within. Very unassuming, most would not predict that inside this beautifully simplistic red-brick boutique hotel (a former pension) would be such high-quality, gourmet fare. A more pleasant surprise I can’t remember. “I think it’s better than the other way around – having high expectations and not being satisfied,” philosophises the genial New Yorker.
Stepping inside the inn’s doors, the antique-style décor gives off that feeling of walking back into your grandparent’s home (a very well-appointed home, that is). It’s a very homely, welcoming and warming experience. Cliff has retained the ‘ma and pop’ vibe since converting from a pension to a boutique hotel – thankfully not over-formalising anything. Just think raging wood fireplace, old stained timber furniture, antique lamps and paisley lounges, among other charms.
Cliff visited Freedom Inn as a guest just a few years ago, when it was still a pension and, with the charming feel of this place, thought it to be ‘the perfect spot to plant his feet’. Fortunately, the owners – a Japanese couple in their sixties – we ready to sell. The rest is history.
But let’s move away from the décor and into the important bit: the food. Cliff, who has lived in Japan for many years, has noticed that ‘the Japanese travel to eat’. “I did the same, came here on a mission following a great Japanese meal I ate in New York once,” he says. “The former owners of the inn cooked occasionally, but there was never a real restaurant. I just can’t imagine doing a lodging here without great food.”
The Freedom Inn’s culinary team, led by Chef Fukushima, all hail from the local Niseko area. “Our humble chef Fukushima has been an institution in the area for years, and has a touch with spices and a passion for cooking that only the great artists have,” says Cliff. We thought we would be the judge of that. Turns out Cliff was right.
For starters, we ordered the unique and flavoursome sliced cod and salad with anchovies on a bed of rucola (¥800). This was accompanied by another entrée, Cliff’s personal favourite, a brochette of skewered Rusutsu pork served on a hot plate with fresh local vegetables. We were forewarned that this pork was one of the most famous meats in the area, so how could we resist? Our suspicions were confirmed: tender and tasty would be an understatement.
The pasta dish for the night was the tagliatelli, a creamy mix of shrimp and scallops in a tomato and gorgonzola sauce (¥1300). This, too, was an excellent choice, due to Chef Fukushima having a particular fondness for cooking with gorgonzola, combined with the fact that Hokkaido seafood, especially the scallops, are among the juiciest and best quality in the world. It must be said that Freedom Inn really capitalises on its access to quality fruits de mer.
We then went for a set course, the ‘Shiribeshi’ (¥5000), which Cliff says really allows the chefs to show off their culinary prowess. This course alone is more than enough for even the most famished of diners. Value for money and simply divine, it is designed to mix the best seafood and meat produce that is the freshest of each particular day – all book-ended by soup, appetisers, dessert du jour and tea or coffee. That particular night we enjoyed creamy pumpkin soup; an antipasto mix of bruschetta, olives, fresh cold cuts and sun-dried tomatoes; a tender, rare main in a Japanese-style beef capriccioso with fresh vegetables, dripping in flavoursome sauce; and an equally saucy seafood main meal featuring more scallops, shrimps, white fish and escargot.
Freshly baked focaccia breads (¥400) soaked up the plentiful soups and sauces.
For dessert we made room for a selection of beautifully decorated pastries. Regretfully, it wasn’t until after our meal that we were told of the chef’s hand-made ice cream, which emphasises the ‘cream’ aspect. Ah well, next time…
Complementing the meal was a breathtaking, quaffable bottle of A. Rafanelli Zinfandel red (¥8800). Cliff’s recommendation, and ‘one of, if not the last, bottle in Japan’, this 2005 gem was pulled from Freedom Inn’s nothing short of impressive cellar of carefully selected Californian wines.
Cliff’s cousin, the friendly and professional Jenna, also from the Big Apple, was waitress for the evening, enchanting us with her conversation, an artistic eye and infallible service.
Tasting and looking at this perfect food, one would expect a hefty bill, considering many have apparently left this inn dubbing the Freedom Inn’s restaurant ‘the best in Niseko’. Where I am from, this sort of food would cost a lot more. A lot more! Thankfully, prices stayed very reasonable. “In addition to creating great-tasting food, we believe in keeping the prices accessible,” says Cliff. “Our basic concept is if people are staying at the hotel, we want them to come down and spend at least half their meals here. If they’re in Hirafu, we’d like to see them at least twice.”
Topping off a perfect night, Freedom Inn has started running a pick-up and drop-off driving service for dining guests from Hirafu.
But if you are looking at more than just an evening at Freedom Inn, the 16-room hotel offers rooms in various configurations – mostly western doubles, but also offering traditional Japanese-style rooms.
While Freedom Inn was built back in 1999, its restaurant is open for business for the first time this winter season after swinging open the doors officially in early December. Cliff, chefs, Jenna and co. should all be proud that they have pulled everything off perfectly the first time around.
For more information on Freedom Inn, including directions and contact details, check www.powderlife.com/restaurants.