Did its move spoil Fuji? Not a bit

Posted: August 05, 2007

If I had worried that the big move had stolen Fuji's magic, the shabu-shabu banished my fears.

It wasn't simply those precious slices of velvety Japanese Kobe beef (not that cheaper, more common American strain), which gently simmered in a bowl of pristine kelp broth alongside perfect bundles of tender veggies. It was the bowl itself - a piece of white paper folded origami-style into a vessel - that sat atop the heat of a licking flame unperturbed and unsinged.

Of course, this was wonder number seven in a parade of nine impressive courses that made up chef Masaharu "Matt" Ito's signature kaiseki tasting. And I was pretty certain earlier on, somewhere between the caviar-crowned tuna tartare in smoked dashi broth and the seared scallop with foie gras and duck posed over a sunburst of kabocha pumpkin puree, that Fuji's mojo was intact.

But I worry about such things, like whether a restaurant's spirit can be damaged when its unlikely-but-lucky home of 27 years - a little brick hut on seedy Route 130 surrounded by hourly rate motels - got bulldozed to make way for a housing development.

After a couple of spectacular meals (despite a few service nits) at its new location in higher-brow Haddonfield, it's clear that Fuji's greatness resides safely in the heart of its artisan chef.

The 54-year-old Ito, long one of the region's most unsung and modest kitchen masters, has inched a bit closer to the limelight here, though his space in the rear of a Kings Highway mini-mall retains a morsel of obscure mystique.

It feels like a homecoming to Ito, who commuted Kings Highway daily as a young man on his way to Sagami in Collingswood, where he worked the sushi counter in the late '70s. And he has made the most of his new address, outfitting a comfortable 68-seat space with an austerely natural but pretty look of varnished bamboo walls, trickling water sculptures, and a polished sushi bar hewn from a single slab of wild Allentown mountain maple. (A curtain to cover the open coat closet near the entrance, though, would make it feel more finished.)

But Fuji's draw was never really about ambience or service. And the service still needs polish, judging from the blank looks our friendly and relatively efficient waiter gave us when we ordered sushi in Japanese. ("I'm Chinese; speak English please!")

The real reason to visit Fuji is simply to eat, because the kitchen creates some of the most authentic and expertly crafted Japanese cooking in the region.

The sushi is handled by Yasuhiko Tasaka, who was the original owner/chef of Hatsuhana in New York, and he works the fish with a master's blade, slicing each piece at just the right angle and thickness to reveal its ultimate beauty.

Fuji creates a handful of fine, relatively subdued maki rolls - like the Rainbow sparked with minty shiso, or the Fuji, which wraps yellowtail and scallions around the earthy crunch of pickled burdock root.

But more straightforward preparations that highlight the quality of the fish, much of it direct from Japan, are the way to go here. The sashimi platter brings what appears to be a standard assortment. But there is something to each slice that resonates on the tongue with extraordinary pleasure: The yellowtail is like eating alabaster-colored butter; the tuna is amazingly soft and fruity, like some exotic ripe melon; the meltingly tender toro, richer with pink streaks of fat than regular tuna, sets my lips aglow with an omega-3 buzz.

You shouldn't miss the creamy sea urchin, either, or the surf clam whose flame-colored petal is perfectly scored for a tender chew, or the live scallops that are sweet as sea candy. Paper-thin rounds of sliced octopus are also addictive, streaked with the sweet spice of miso mustard.

But there is so much else to eat at Fuji, save room. The tempura batter is crisp and translucent. The teriyaki sauce, steeped for three days from beef bones, ginger, garlic and sake, has a complex depth behind its gloss of sweetness that coaxes extra savor from a tender Angus sirloin. The lighter gravy for the amazingly delicate pork, sparkling with crystal ginger, is addictive.

A garlicky marinade amplifies the intense beefiness of the Kobe beef starter. Four small raw slices arrive with a mini-hibachi for tabletop cooking at a hefty $32 for two ounces. But the meat, shot through with white streaks like Venetian marble, practically dissolves on the tongue.

The Kobe was a rare pleasure, but not even the highlight of my visits. Those inevitably come from Ito's inspired kaisekis, which, of the six I've eaten over the years, remarkably have never repeated a dish.

It could have been the succulent lamb chops this time that came as wonder course number eight, slicked with five-spice gravy beside purple rice and wild French baby asparagus spears so slender I twirled them on my fork like thistle-topped green noodles.

But the winner, chopsticks-down, was the two-toned soft-shell crabs, one pink with a jacket of sweet rice, the other jeweled in white pearls of rice puff, that rose from the plate intertwined around a scarlet stalk of pickled young ginger and lotus chips.

Beneath their crackling crusts, moistened from a quick dip in citrusy ponzu broth, was the sweet, white, flaky meat of the best soft-shell crabs I've ever eaten.

Fuji's magic has made its big move intact.


Next week: Craig LaBan reviews Rylei in the Northeast.

Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2593 or claban@phillynews.com.

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