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Fuji Authentic Japanese
116 East Kings Highway
Haddonfield, Camden County, New Jersey
(856) 354-8200

By The Artful Diner
January 12, 2009

I have fond memories of several visits to Fuji at its Cinnaminson location, a nondescript little brick bungalow set along a seedy strip of Route 130 surrounded by a gaggle of sleazy motels. The environs may have been the pits, but it was chef/proprietor Masaharu "Matt" Ito's superb Japanese cuisine that kept customers streaming through the door for nearly three decades.

Once the bulldozers took over to make way for a housing development, however, Fuji moved to more affluent quarters in Haddonfield. Sequestered away at the rear of a mini-mall, the interior is serene and sedate and boasts a natural, dignified décor of varnished bamboo walls, white napery, water sculptures, and beautiful polished sushi bar. And the service is still comparable to what it was: solicitously sweet but slightly oblivious, undoubtedly a result of the language barrier.

But there were a number of other issues here, mostly revolving around the cuisine. In his recent review of Fuji, Philadelphia Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan waxed positively lyrical with regard to Mr. Ito's signature kaiseki tasting menu. But you would certainly expect this, would you not, of the chef's magnum opus? Other individual presentations, however, didn't set off the same bells and whistles as they had on previous occasions.

Let's begin at the top... The seaweed salad and the sliced cucumber & rice noodle salad imbued with an irresistible sesame vinaigrette are both outstanding. But the superlative jumbo shrimp/vegetable tempura is, in my opinion, even more profound. The batter is -- to drag in an excessively overused adjective -- ethereal... The crustaceans are properly crunchy and at the peak of good health, and the broccoli & slices of sweet potato, superb.

So far, so good. Then, along came the pan-fried dumplings. The accompanying mustard dipping sauce had an ingratiating zip, but the dumplings themselves exhibited a decidedly rubbery consistency. And they also tasted a bit odd; morsels of pork and vegetables, we were told. I've sampled better.

Among the starters, though, the small sashimi combo -- yellowtail, salmon, flounder, and tuna -- proved the greatest disappointment. I've reveled in the sushi and sashimi several times at Fuji; but, this time around, it simply didn't measure up. Good, yes... but not exceptional... and exceptional was precisely what I had come to expect. Lacking, in my opinion, was the exquisitely silky texture of the fish, which had been so decadently front and center during previous visits.

Additionally, while other starters made their way to table in a timely, properly-paced manner, the sashimi took an inordinate length of time to put in an appearance. When queried, our waitress explained that things were slightly backed up at the sushi bar. Since the restaurant was rather sparsely populated at the time, I wouldn't want to hazard a guess as to how long one would have to wait if the joint were really jumping.

Entrées have their ups and downs. On a positive note, the steamed red snapper was perfection itself. The flesh was moist and flaky, rife with flavor, and the ginger & black bean sizzle and splash of scallion oil added immeasurably to the sumptuous presentation. The pork cutlet à la Japan -- panko-crusted, deep-fried, and served up with a spirited tonkatsu sauce and small mound of zippy wasabi mashed potatoes -- was also right on the money. On the other hand, the pork loin, while nicely grilled and quite tender, was sabotaged by an off-puttingly odd ginger-teriyaki sauce.

The Kobe beef, however, turned out to be the real problem... And at $48.00 for a few thin slices, this is an expensive problem, indeed. The slices of raw beef are presented with a mini-hibachi for tabletop cooking. Unfortunately, they come wrapped in the throes of a marinade that ultimately masks rather than enhances the natural flavor and richness of the meat.

But the greatest faux pas is the fact that the raw beef arrives on a single plate already adorned with a prepared vegetable medley that is meant to accompany the Kobe. It is obviously assumed that one will cook the slices of meat on the hibachi and then -- and there is no alternative, unless one immediately summons a server and asks for a clean plate -- return the cooked slices to the same plate that had originally held the raw meat.

A hygienic nightmare, to say the least. As numerous health authorities have noted: "Never place cooked food on a plate that previously held raw meat, poultry or seafood. When grilling meat and poultry, a clean plate should always be used when taking these foods off the grill." When it comes to the safe & sanitary handling of food, these words are, of course, gospel... And the fact that such an experienced kitchen, with such an experienced and celebrated chef at the helm, could err so flagrantly is cause of considerable skepticism, if not downright alarm.

When it comes to dessert, the two made-in-house entries -- chocolate crème brûlée and banana tempura -- are obviously the best. The former is laced with Kahlúa, the latter adorned with vanilla ice cream and honey. The Key lime pie is strictly generic and overpriced at $7.50.

The Bottom Line: There is no question that, in many respects, Fuji is a fine restaurant and "Matt" Ito an accomplished chef. Perhaps the incident with the raw Kobe beef was simply an unfortunate mistake that is never likely to be repeated. It is, however, more than enough to give potential patrons considerable pause.

Cuisine: Japanese
Hours: Lunch: Tues - Sun, 11:30 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.; Dinner: Tues - Thurs, 5:00 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 5:00 p.m. - 10:30 p.m.; Sun, 4:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.; CLOSED MONDAY
Credit Cards: Most major
Attire: Casual
Reservations: Recommended
Parking:Metered street parking; municipal lot behind restaurant
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Moderate, morphing to $48.00 for kobe beef entrée
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Website: fujirestaurant.com

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