Loyal customers feared the worst when this sushi jewel—improbably nestled in a nondescript building between tacky motels on a busy stretch of Route 130 in Cinnaminson—was forced to close in the spring of 2006. Bulldozers took the last bites, razing it along with structures on adjacent blocks to make way for senior housing.
Fans fretted that the talented owner, Masaharu “Matt” Ito, who had earned consistent acclaim in his 28 years at Fuji, would pack up his knives and finally succumb to the allure of Philadelphia or New York, where he could certainly hold his own among the best of his contemporaries.
- SEARED: Whole scallop topped with foie gras, in pumpkin sauce.
Ito did consider several locations in Philadelphia, but thankfully for South Jerseyans, those plans fell through. Ito, 54, instead found a space in the back of a renovated mini-mall (long ago an A&P) in the historic district of downtown Haddonfield. He hired Philadelphia architect Elisabeth Knapp—whose family had been dining at Fuji for years—to design his new restaurant, expanding the kitchen and doubling seating capacity to 68.
The charming new space creates a relaxed atmosphere with walls finished in dark-lacquered bamboo, soothing wall fountains salvaged from the original Fuji, and a striking eight-seat sushi bar—its two-tiered counter cut from a single log of white maple, the edges retaining the natural contours of the trunk of the tree, which came from a lumberyard near the Delaware Water Gap.
The beautiful calligraphy at the center of the bar translates as “Fuji sushi.” The pictogram on the right is the one that means sushi, its component strokes representing the idea of fish and finger. Aha, finger food!
By any name, the new Fuji is a welcome addition to a downtown seeking to rival the “restaurant row” of its resurgent neighbor, Collingswood. Ito’s excellent offerings are pulling in his old devotees as well as attracting new fans.
FRIED: Almond-crusted shrimp dumplings.
His flawless fish, some imported from Japan, arrives daily. Sushi and sashimi are as gorgeously presented as ever: thick cuts of prime toro, meaty scallops, lush salmon sprinkled with its own roe, buttery yellowtail, tender octopus, as well as the inspired rolls. The inside-out Rainbow Roll—tuna, salmon, flounder, and waluu (Hawaiian butterfish), garnished with avocado and tobiko (flying fish roe)—is a stunner.
There are plenty of worthy cooked entrées as well. The light, crisp, shrimp and vegetable tempura may be the best I’ve tasted. Pan-seared Chilean sea bass in a lovely garlic sauce was sublime. Panko-crusted, deep-fried pork loin was a tender delight. Sirloin strips enticingly marinated in fresh ginger, garlic, and soy are partially cooked, then brought to the table along with a portable grill to be finished by guests, in the manner of Korean barbecue.
There is even a children’s menu that includes chicken teriyaki and panko-crusted cod sticks that put frozen fish sticks to shame.
A native of Oita, on the southern island of Kyushu, Japan, Ito apprenticed as a sushi chef in his homeland for eight years. In 1976, a friend recommended him for a job in America—at South Jersey’s other venerable sushi gem, Sagami, which had opened in 1974. Ito worked at the sushi bar there, excelling at his craft, before opening the original Fuji in 1980.
Ito feels strongly about honoring his heritage, but he is not a slave to tradition. He learned early in his apprenticeship that a successful restaurant cooks what people want to eat, and that explains some of Fuji’s concessions to American tastes. Fortunately, he makes no concession on quality. The crisp, deep-fried, sesame chicken wings, for example, were sensational. The crab cake, though quite respectable, is not yet up to Ito’s standards. He is working on a variation involving rice paper and a snappy, more gingery sauce.
To experience the true genius of Matt Ito, you must put your evening in his hands and indulge in his eight-course kaiseki dinner ($80 per person). Kaiseki literally means “stone in the stomach,” and refers to the practice of 16th Century Japanese monks tucking hot stones in the sashes of their kimonos during prayer to warm their stomachs and ease their fasting. Modern kaiseki is obviously not about self-denial, but the artful presentation of a sequence of intricately composed, ethereally delicious dishes can still be a transcendant experience.
The range of tastes and textures in Ito’s ever-changing kaisekis never fails to impress. We were treated to a sampler comprising a silky raw scallop topped with shredded cabbage and scallion; “candy crab” (a baby softshell caramelized with sugar and soy sauce); and a lovely slice of smoked salmon wrapped around roasted asparagus. That was merely a warm-up for the main events.
Next came an unforgettably soothing clam broth full of plump littlenecks and soft udon noodles. That led to feather-light, puffy rock shrimp tempura, served with a subtle sweet-and-sour sauce. Then a meltingly tender sashimi platter from the gods. Mango and lemon sorbet concluded the meal on a fittingly light yet flavorful note.
South Jersey is blessed to have retained this treasure of a restaurant. But Ito feels just as blessed. “I think back to one year ago, when I had no job, no kitchen,” he says. “I didn’t know what I would do, where I would go. And today I am so happy. I have a kitchen and I can do the job I love.” —Maureen FitzgeraldClick here to leave a comment
Cuisine Type:Asian - Japanese - Sushi
Ambience:Serene and pleasant
Service:Good, but can be inconsistent