At the new Fuji, chef Masaharu Ito reminds us what Japanese cuisine is really about.
Too many foodies take the narrow view of Japanese cuisine. For these people, it’s all about sushi and sashimi, as if professing allegiance to raw fish connotes an enlightened palate. Order something like tempura or teriyaki in their favorite Japanese restaurant and you’ll inevitably get a cluck of the tongue.
Likewise, too many foodies take the narrow view of South Jersey dining. For them, it’s all a culinary wasteland, filled with strip malls and deep-fried things. Mention that you found a good restaurant in South Jersey and you’ll be sure to get an eye-roll.
That’s why it’s always been surprising and refreshing that the best Japanese restaurant in the Philadelphia area didn’t fit neatly into those narrow views: Fuji’s specialty wasn’t sushi, and it was located along a hardscrabble stretch of Route 130 in Cinnaminson. For 27 years, people in the know trekked to the otherwise nondescript spot to enjoy chef Masaharu “Matt” Ito’s eight-course kaiseki tasting meals.
Now, Ito has traded seedy motels for the doll and quilting shops of downtown Haddonfield. “I built my dream kitchen here,” Ito says. “I think I can be even more creative than I was at the old place.” But I don’t think Ito needs to be more “creative.” Much of the delight in his cooking is to be found, not in the bold and exotic, but rather in the masterful reawakening of familiar tastes.
The new Fuji is located inside the Shops at 116, a small mall on Kings Highway that also houses a jewelry shop, a travel agency and a salon. The mall location is a little jarring, but once you open the restaurant’s door, you forget all about it. Ito’s 68-seat spot is larger than the old space, with gurgling sculpture fountains, decorative screens, and typical Japanese prints.
One of our first few meals got off to a rocky start. When we arrived for our reservation, there was no one staffing the hostess table for at least 15 minutes. The restaurant was full, and the tiny waiting area was packed with diners. When the hostess finally arrived, she was overwhelmed by people buying gift certificates and picking up takeout.
The kind, friendly servers here become similarly frazzled when the place gets busy, and they aren’t particularly good at explaining the menu. For instance, my dining companion pointed to the menu to ask a server what ankimo-sunomono was. “Oh, that’s ankimo-sunomono,” the server said with a smile. And then she walked away. So I’ll tell you: The very traditional Japanese dish is an exquisite sampling of monkfish liver served in a tart ponzu sauce. With its creamy, fatty taste and texture, it’s a relatively adventurous dish to serve in a suburban restaurant — but, in their own way, so are Ito’s teriyaki and tempura.
How numb our palates have become after years of bland Kikkoman-driven teriyakis and greasy, over-battered tempura. Ito’s teriyaki, which takes three to four days to prepare, is an entirely different experience: richer, deeper, a complex balance between salty and sweet. An appetizer sea scallop teriyaki, a lunch entrée of suzuki sea bass teriyaki, and a dinner entrée of beef teriyaki were all revelatory. Ito’s tempura is so light and crisp that he even brings it onto the dessert menu, with a wonderful banana tempura served with vanilla ice cream.
This is not to say that you should ignore Fuji’s raw side. I have a friend, Sasha Issenberg, who’s an honest-to-goodness sushi expert — he’s written an acclaimed book on the subject. After one early visit, he declared Fuji’s sushi to be “unexciting.” I think he’s being unfair. Fuji may not have the flash of other sushi spots, but Ito’s chefs put forth excellent sushi and sashimi, and I especially enjoyed the sea bream, live scallop, and sardines lightly dressed with scallions and some olive and sesame oil.
Of course, all this was merely a prelude to the big event: the $80 kaiseki tasting meal — which you must book in advance. It’s a meticulously executed tour on and off the menu, with the portions, pacing, and variety of dishes all orchestrated with care.
Our first course was a perfect, petite timbale of tuna tartare with a little sevruga caviar on top, a far cry from the tuna-cube towers one normally encounters. (Ito adds a bonito fish broth, for a nice smoky flavor.) Next came small pots of dobin, a soup of shiitake, scallops, shrimp and clams in a clear broth, followed by thin slices of raw walu, carpaccio-style, served with slices of pink grapefruit in light passion-fruit-oil sauce and crushed black pepper and the perfect accompaniment, tiny sesame sticks made of puff pastry. Now Ito switched again from raw to cooked with two tender lamb chops, served in a mustard-balsamic reduction atop greens dressed in sesame oil. Then, as if breaking for a sort of halftime, we had a sampling of sushi and sashimi.
To begin the second half, we tucked into a succulent soft-shell crab, encrusted with sweet rice and lightly fried. Then we grilled thin slices of Japanese beef and lobster over a small hibachi. Finally, as the eighth course — when we should have been full — we devoured thin slices of duck in a plum-wine reduction, accompanied by black rice and a sliver of foie gras.
I am telling you this as honestly as I can: This dinner at the new Fuji was one of the most memorable meals I’ve had, anywhere, over the past several years. Ito’s kaiseki dinners in particular demonstrate that he’s one of the best, most underrated chefs around — and that familiar and creative aren’t mutually exclusive.
Fuji, 116 East Kings Highway, Haddonfield, 856-354-8200, fujirestaurant.com