The cardinal rule of choosing a sushi restaurant is to dine someplace very popular because the rapid turnover of the fish probably means your selections will be fresher.
By that tenet, Fuji Restaurant in Ellicott City certainly qualifies as a good choice. The 40-seat eatery, on the fringe of a core of restaurants on Baltimore National Pike, is often packed, and scoring a seat at the four-chair sushi bar is the biggest feat of all.
But Fuji isn't just about sushi; the menu comprises a full array of Japanese dishes, including shabu-shabu (thin beef slices cooked in broth at the table) and yakisoba (stir-fried thin noodles with vegetables and seafood or meat).
Nariko and Asa Toshi Takamine opened Fuji in 1992 after moving to Maryland from Miami, where they had owned and operated a Japanese restaurant. Unlike Miami, Nariko Takamine explained, Maryland has lots of Asian residents and people who love Japanese food.
On three visits, at least half of the diners were Asian, and most of them were eating the restaurant's cooked dishes.
Fuji -- sandwiched between an auto repair shop and a vacuum cleaner store in the Pine Orchard Shopping Center -- has a tiny tatami mat area near the front for traditional, seated-on-the-floor dining. But most choose the half-dozen tables that fill the left side of the restaurant. Decorations are spare; the focus here is on the food, specifically the traditional dishes.
Fuji isn't the place to look for outrageous combination rolls, but the standards showcase impeccably fresh seafood and gently flavored sushi rice. Rich, buttery toro (fatty tuna) sits upon small pillows of warm rice, each complementing the other perfectly. A deluxe assortment of sashimi includes no surprises: tuna, yellowtail, flounder, octopus and salmon, presented on mounds of shredded daikon radish. The flavors are clean, and your tongue can feel the differing textures.
Asa Toshi Takamine works quietly and nimbly behind the single refrigerated case that displays the day's choices. He is Fuji's sole sushi chef, preparing orders for the entire restaurant of diners and Fuji's brisk takeout business. That doesn't leave him much time for chatting with diners at the bar, though don't be surprised if he offers you a taste of something special if you show an appreciation for his work.
Pay attention to the cooked dishes. As a starter, gyoza (meat-filled dumplings) are light and tasty, the dough almost gossamer. But I'd prefer a more assertive sauce. The breading on the shrimp tempura appetizer is crisp, and the shrimp are fresh and sweet-tasting. But the accompanying vegetables aren't treated quite so well. The single broccoli floret is overcooked and adds nothing to the dish, and other vegetables fare no better. Yakitori (chicken and green onions cooked on skewers) is juicy morsels of fowl napped in a mild Japanese barbecue sauce.
Across the room, you can hear the arrival of teriyaki preparations: seafood, chicken or meat. They are presented on sizzling platters, and the sound is reminiscent of Chinese rice dishes. The same type of small grilling pan (similar to those on which fajitas are often served in Mexican restaurants) is the platform for yakisoba, slender buckwheat and wheat flour noodles (similar in size to Chinese-style egg noodles) that are stir-fried and served with vegetables and meat or seafood. In Japan, yakisoba is a favorite snack food, especially for late-night revelers.
At Fuji, they make a perfect luncheon dish. The secret to yakisoba is the sauce, a thick brown condiment that is sweeter than and not as spicy as Worcestershire sauce. A crown of shrimp adorned my order of yakisoba, and there were more in the tangle of noodles.
Dishes featuring the thicker udon (wheat flour noodles) are a favorite here, though none of the noodle varieties are made fresh at the restaurant.
Fuji Japanese Restaurant 10226 Baltimore National Pike (U.S. Route 40), in the Pine Orchard Shopping Center, Ellicott City, 410-750-2455. Hours: lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; dinner, 4:30 to 10:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, and Sundays; 2:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Saturdays. The sushi bar remains open until 11:30 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Lunch combination plates, $9.95 to $14.95; dinner appetizers, $4.50 to $7.95; dinner main courses, $9.95 to $28.95.
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