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Monday, March 24, 2008

Fuji

Yeah, yeah, I know there are plenty of good restaurants in South Jersey, just barely across the bridge from downtown Philadelphia. But there's something about the roads over there: I don't know if it's the traffic circles, the jughandles, the route numbers, some sort of magnetic disturbance that interrupts my normally decent sense of direction... whatever it is, I get totally disoriented in New Jersey, and as a result, have ignored many places over there that have been recommended by friends I trust.

At various times I've enlisted a guide and actually made it over the bridge and back. Blackbird Dining Establishment, Oh Yoko! and Water Lily have all been good. Yet, I rarely head over there on my own, as soon as I get across the bridge, I get a little dizzy...

The most tragic omission from my dining habits has been Matt Ito's Fuji. Many of my dining friends, actually most of them, have chastised me over the years for not frequenting this spot, which many regard as serving the best Japanese food in the area, and perhaps some of the best food of any kind.

Thanks to some organized peer-pressure, and a small GPS navigation device, I finally made it there. As expected, the experience did indeed make me regret waiting this long. It was a very fine dinner, perhaps not quite as life-changing as some have reported, but very exciting, surprising, varied, and most importantly, delicious throughout. I'm eager to go back and try more. Chef Ito is obviously very talented, and I enjoy his combination of classic skills and modern ideas.

On this visit, we opted for an "omakase" meal, basically turning ourselves over to Chef Ito, and having him serve whatever he felt was best. I was with some frequent customers, so I'm sure the chef's knowledge of their tastes and preferences had some influence on the specifics of the items. I'd expect that on any given day, it would be different. In fact a few friends went only a couple of days later and had a similar, but definitely not identical experience.

We started with what seems to be a frequent opener at Fuji:
Kumamoto Oysters

Lovely, sweet, perfect oysters were served in this case with a classic mignonette, but I've seen reports of other accompaniments. It's a great way to start: simple, clean, delicious.

Another signature Fuji dish (along with plenty of other modern Japanese restaurants) is Tuna Tartare with Caviar and Wasabi cream.

As with the oysters, when a dish is this good, it's very hard to complain about it being fairly common these days. It's a great idea, and executed well here.

Not at all common was the next course of sashimi with various sauces. Unfortunately I didn't hear any descriptions of the components, if any were given, and chef Ito was busy prepping another course back in the kitchen while we were eating this, so we didn't have a chance to ask questions.

On the left was a piece of monkfish liver; next, an amazing combination of salmon and bright citrus; next to that, a slice of mackerel, or a similar fish, it's always a little hard to say under a sauce - in this case an egg-yolk-based concoction similar to a Hollandaise; and finally some mild white fish in a ponzu sauce. I'm normally a little obsessive about knowing what everything is, but in this case I just gave myself over to the bold and vibrant flavors, and stopped intellectualizing it. This was one of my favorite courses in an excellent meal.

Foie Gras, Seared Tuna, Field Greens

The bright vinegary bite of the salad dressing provided a perfect counterweight to the richness of both the foie and the tuna. This was especially good when all elements were sampled together.

Sesame Chicken Wings

This wasn't really supposed to be part of the omakase, but my dining companions had heard that Chef Ito made great fried chicken, so we asked if he could include some at some point. And indeed, these were excellent wings, very crispy on the outside, without a thick breading, while remaining juicy on the inside. They reminded us a bit of the great Korean chicken wings that have become available a few places around Philly, such as at Soho in the Northeast.

Then we started on the more traditional sushi courses. While these were mostly classic forms of nigiri and maki, that's not to say they were pedestrian in any way. The quality of the fish, the flavor and texture of the rice, the careful assembly, made for some of the best sushi I've had. The chef often included a dab of fresh wasabi or other spicing, adding a slight shading to the flavors, but letting the inherent qualities of the fish shine through.

Fluke


Maguro


Yellowjack


Cured Salmon


Hamachi Belly
(there were two pieces of this, like the others, but I lost control and ate one before photographing...)


Spicy Tuna


Chu-Toro (seared and raw)


Uni and Unagi


Scallop


Clam


Spider Roll (soft shell crab)


Kohada and Uni


This was a lot of food, and all of it good. If I have any complaints, it was that it seemed to be coming pretty fast, and I occasionally felt like I was tossing nigiri in my mouth mostly to make room for the next pieces coming down the line, a little like the classic I Love Lucy skit, with Lucy and Ethel on the candy production line.

I think this resulted partly from me wasting time taking pictures, and party from the two fastest eaters being seated closest to the chef, so it was probably paced perfectly for them. I tend to be a slower eater in general, so in a perfect world, I would have backed the pace down a little bit, but I completely understand why the courses were being served as they were.

We were sitting at the sushi bar, which is generally considered the best way to eat at Fuji. This is a good rule at any sushi-ya: that close communication with the Itamae will almost always enhance the experience. Friends tell me that this is especially true at Fuji, they say that sitting at a table is dramatically different. It's not that the service is bad at the tables, it's the food itself, that one step of distance somehow impacts the entire meal. I haven't eaten at a table, but I think I would regret not being able to chat with Matt and his son Jesse, and I'm sure that interaction impacts the food too.

We'd had a very large meal, nonetheless, a little something sweet sounded right. Jesse Ito has been making many of the desserts, including a very good Chocolate Creme Brulée.


I think the Chocolate Fudge Cake is brought in from a nearby bakery, but it's nonetheless quite delicious.


I opted for some fresh pineapple, which may not require any advanced cooking skills, but it was so tasty that I'll give them credit for knowing how to choose a good fruit.

Fuji changed locations in the last year or so, moving from a grungy commercial strip to an upscale retail area. There was apparently a bumpy transition, with new sushi chefs not quite maintaining the previous high standards. But by all accounts it's back to its former glory, with Chef Ito behind the sushi bar most nights. I'm certainly looking forward to making up lost time and making many more visits. I'll agree with my friends who count it as one of the best restaurants in the Philadelphia area.

Fuji
116 East Kings Highway
Haddonfield, NJ
www.fujirestaurant.com
856-354-8200

2 comments:

  1. Dawn Warden12:22 PM

    You are torturing me this week with all those tantalizing photos.

    It's making it very easy for me to throw up the old excuse of writer's block so I can read your blog. Fuji is on my list of immediate eats...the sushi looks delectable. How do you compare it to let's say, Sagami and Bluefin? (I lean more towards sashimi and can't say that I am notably adventurous in my fish selections, but judging from your photos, I'd be foolish not to experiment at Fuji.)

    And, I'd love your input on the best locally-crafted microbrew you've tasted this past year.

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  2. Ahh, glad to know the photos are working!

    re Sagami: it's in Jersey, so you know, the Jersey thing, I don't go there. I know it's wrong... People I trust like it a lot, but primarily for cooked food, they prefer Fui for sushi.

    re Bluefin: I have no good excuse for never having been there either. Bu my sense is that Fuji is stronger and that Bluefin is a bit trendier, but that's just from what I read, not from personal experience.

    And OK, best local microbrew... I'll think about that some more, but top-of-brain is the Rye IPA at Dock Street. Very bitter, a little dark, definitely had some character from the rye.

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