What's the best restaurant in Philadelphia?
How about a restaurant whose most passionate customers never look at the menu and never place an order? Maybe a hard-to-find place with no wine list, no sign and a tiny kitchen? Could it be a place that's not in Philadelphia at all? If that sounds unlikely, then it's time you knew about Fuji Japanese Restaurant in (are you ready?) Haddonfield, New Jersey.
Fuji is actually two restaurants: First is the eight-seat sushi bar. Then there's a table-service area that seats 60 and serves the freshest possible fish in preparations that vary from classical Japanese to traditional American to beguilingly original. Both Fujis are the work of chef Matt Ito, who would have to be considered one of the half-dozen people of genius plying the chef trade in the Delaware Valley.
Our not-so-humble reviewer, who has tried at least a hundred sushi joints, thinks this is the best sushi in the United States. Unfortunately, many other people think so too, so it's best to call in advance for reservations.
A love story told in food
The routine at the sushi bar calls for the patron to come in and say hello, maybe get a bottle opened and wait for the food: small portions in elegant platings arriving in a sequence that seems like the narrative of a love story. In Japanese, it's called omakase, which means something like "It's up to you" but whose intent is to call forth a kind of improv that would make Second City weep with shame.
Here's what happened the last time I was there.
Chef Ito opened with a bit of a misdirection play: Kumamoto oysters with Matt's special soy mignonette. Instead of the light tang we expect from oysters, these tiny, creamy little saltines have a buttery firmness and lingering aftertaste. They take their name from a bay on the west coast of Japan, but all of today's stock comes from the USA.
Miso soup is often a routine, bland palate cleanser— a simple, salty broth— but we were surprised again with oysters, broccoli and shiitake mushrooms in an earthy brown stock.
The Wretched Excess course
Then came the Wretched Excess course: Live scallop, thinly sliced with truffle oil, shaved truffle and black caviar on a bed of greens. The aromas were underplayed and beguiling.
Joe's stone crab claws don't need much hype. Ours came with a mustard seed mayonnaise that was delectable yet still didn't detract from the crab. We followed that lush pair with a spare and chewy clam ceviche with a key lime slice. A little bit of jaw work and your mouth is cleared for….
Seared crusty tuna with seared foie gras on top. The foie is barely cooked, and the crust on the tuna provides a crunchy foil for its unctuous texture. Soy sauce with radish sprouts made a modest counterpoint, but there was nothing modest about the groans of pleasure from our party.
If you've eaten uni (sea urchin), you know that it's foie gras' only serious rival: This uni arrives on your plate in its fabulous purple spiky shell, a silky oceanic twist on luxury.
A succession of flavor bombs
When we seemed about to drown in satin, we moved on to sliced abalone sushi crowned with a sliver of abalone liver: crunchy and yielding and almost startling. Just to make sure we knew we were in a sushi bar, Chef Ito finished the meal with tuna, sea bream, amberjack and smoked salmon sushi, each one a yielding flavor bomb.
Dessert always seems a bit strange after an omakase: Is there any taste you'd rather leave with than satin-fatty salmon? Matt came up with deep fried green figs with green tea ice cream and fresh raspberries with a trickle of honey.
How does it compare?
So what's the big deal? The whole thing sounds almost childishly simple: a little bit of fresh fish, a sauce or two, a grilled something, a few careful slices and you've got it. How, you ask, can I compare a sushi bar with restaurants that specialize in more effortful cuisine?
Leaving aside the question of the pure rush of delight in extreme freshness, one of the best measures of the difficulty is that the stunningly delicious omakase at Fuji is very rare indeed. You'll be disappointed for twice the price at Matsushita in L.A., and you'll only approximate it at New York's Soto. There's nothing in our area that even comes close.
It may be that the fanaticism required to consistently beat up your fish vendors for the freshest fish available is incompatible with the playful spirit that remakes a classic like miso soup and somehow makes it better.
Fuji is a BYO, and we brought the sushi-friendly Duvel Belgian Ale and Sempuku Kura Sake. There's parking in the back and the promise of a special New Year Dinner on January 25th.
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