Restaurant Review

Fuji

Chen Zheng, Fuji’s longtime sushi chef, buys the legendary restaurant from its founders and endeavors to extend its legacy.

A bowl of chirashi—raw fish, vegetables, tamago (cold, sweet omelet) over rice.
A bowl of chirashi—raw fish, vegetables, tamago (cold, sweet omelet) over rice.
Photo by Jason Varney

Fuji in Haddonfield has a legion of fans stretching back to 1979, when Masaharu “Matt” Ito opened his sushi temple in nearby Cinnaminson, moving it to Haddonfield in 2007. Customers were stunned over the winter when news broke that Ito and his talented 27-year-old son, Jesse, the hardworking heir apparent, had sold the business and would open a new restaurant in Philadelphia.

“We decided to sell to pursue a different direction,” Jesse explains. “My parents are in their 60s. I have to worry about their financial well-being going forward, as well as my own ambitions.” Those ambitions are focused on the Philly restaurant Matt and Jesse are opening this summer, Royal Sushi & Izakaya, essentially a Japanese pub with a menu that goes beyond sushi and, crucially, has a liquor license.

Meanwhile, the good news on our side of the river is that little has changed at Fuji. “We never closed; the sale was private,” Jesse says. “My father approached a few people he thought would be interested.” He did not need to look far.

Chen Zheng, Fuji’s sushi chef of more than 20 years, is the new owner. He understands the gravity of taking over a beloved establishment, one whose sushi supremacy in the area has been challenged over the years only by Sagami in Collingswood. After my meals at Fuji, I e-mailed Zheng to set up an interview for this review. His response: “We hope you found everything was still the same as before with chef Matt.”

For the most part, I did. In terms of quality and consistency of execution, that was a good thing. In three visits spread over five weeks, the main menu, as under the Itos, changed not at all. Under the Itos, however, specials—typed on white paper tucked into the menu—changed weekly, even daily, depending on the delights of the day’s delivery. In Zheng’s Fuji, a typed specials sheet was still inserted into the menu, but in my visits it changed barely at all. What was missing was the sense of discovery and surprise the Itos made a constant.

Matt and later Jesse were renowned for their kaiseki and larger omakase chef’s tasting menus. These were not on the main menu and had to be requested in advance. Many sushi connoisseurs made pilgrimages to Fuji just for the rarities and exotic delights of these menus. I am told that they are still available under chef Zheng, but he has yet to develop his own reputation and style with these ultimate tests of creativity and artistry.

Zheng, nonetheless, is a very accomplished hand and teacher. Fuji’s sushi and sashimi were as fresh and skillfully made as ever. Sliced raw scallops lost none of their subtle sweetness and firm texture. Chu-toro, the second most fatty cut of bluefin tuna belly, all but melted in the mouth. Plump, creamy California uni (sea-urchin roe) on cushions of sushi rice wrapped in nori shone like orange sherbet. Rolls were well constructed and precisely sliced. The one not to miss is the Sunset Roll, an Ito holdover. It involves spicy salmon, masago (crunchy capelin salmon roe) and scallion wrapped in staggered slices of walu (a Spanish fish called escolar), tuna and avocado. It was lovely to behold and heavenly to eat.

For all its sushi eminence, Fuji wasn’t, and isn’t, a one-trick sea horse. Its tamago, the traditional cold Japanese omelet served on fingers of sushi rice (or in chirashi, a rice bowl topped with fish and vegetables) continues to be the best I’ve had: tender, moist, springy, subtly sweet. Chawanmushi, the classic warm egg custard, had the silkiness of perfect panna cotta. My spoon  brought up buried treasures: shiitakes, bites of steamed chicken and shrimp, and bean-like ginkgo nuts.

Switching to chopsticks for an order of broiled yellowtail collar (hamachi kama), I liberated lumps of flavorful, fatty meat nestled in the contours of the neck bone.

The soups, each served in a different type of vessel, were extraordinary. The miso released an umami fest of toothsomely tender seaweed and the titular fermented bean paste. It was so good I ordered it at every meal to see if every bowl held to the same high standard. They did. In the ebi shumai soup, dumplings filled with sweet ground shrimp were ethereal—but no more so than the pale gold and faintly marine broth itself.

Kinoki, at the heady end of the heartiness spectrum, was a mushroom broth nested with chewy, nutty, soba noodles, clusters of tiny hon shimeji mushrooms and slivered scallion. It was a special, which, if Zheng holds to form, means it will likely be available whenever you go.

Chewy, slightly sweet mochi ice cream, made from smoothed sticky rice enclosing a small scoop of ice cream, was at first the only dessert (but now has company). Flavors are mango, red bean, green tea, plus one I had never seen, black sesame. It tasted good, like cold, mildly sweet tahini.

Servers are unfailingly pleasant, but they can get frazzled at peak times. You might order an iced tea when you sit down and not receive it until your first plate of food arrives 15 minutes later. Consider that a reason to go on weeknights, when the dining room feels more serene. Fuji’s food still invites contemplation, even if its new owner has not yet shown whether he is more than an able caretaker.

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Restaurant Details

  • Cuisine Type:
    Asian - Japanese - Sushi
  • Price Range:
    Moderate
  • Price Details:
    Sushi rolls, $3-$19; sushi per piece, $2-$6; appetizers, $3-$18; entrées, $19-$30; desserts, $7.
  • Ambience:
    Quiet, comfortable dining room, its focus the beautiful wood sushi bar.
  • Service:
    Friendly, but can be inattentive when busy.
  • Wine list:
    BYO.
  • Fuji
    116 East King’s Highway
    Haddonfield, NJ 08033
  • Reservations:
    not needed
  • Hours:
    Tuesday-Thursday: 11:30 - 2:30, 4:30 - 9:00;
    Friday: 11:30 - 2:30, 5:00 - 10:00;
    Saturday: 12:00 - 2:30, 5:00 - 10:00;
    Sunday: 4:00 - 9:00;
    Monday: Closed

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