There's been a flurry of sushi restaurant openings around town, with at least three new ones popping up East of the Cooper in just the past few months. By my count, that brings the total number of sushi bars in the Charleston area to well over two dozen.
That's a lot of sashimi and nigiri for a city this size, and it makes one wonder what's going on. Are we seeing a resurgence of sushi as the hip thing to eat, a replay of the 1980s when a whole wave of Americans suddenly discovered that eating raw fish wasn't icky and dangerous but rather sophisticated and cool? Or, is it something else?
Fuji Sushi Bar and Grill, which opened back in the fall in Mt. Pleasant's Belle Hall Shopping Center, is one of the latest entrants in the field, and it provides an instructive example of today's sushi dynamic.
First off, Fuji has a lot of style. The proprietors have done a nice job of working up an ordinary shopping center storefront into an appealing place that mixes the peaceful red and brown themes of traditional Japanese décor with modernistic twists, including funky glassware and plates. The interior space is half divided between the bar area and the more formal dining area, and the restaurant seems to do both a good happy hour and a good dinner business. The bathroom calls out for particular note, since its sink — a round clear glass bowl with an angular silver spout — easily rivals Tristan's as the swankiest in town.
The décor sets high expectations, and the appetizers and salads get things off to a promising start. The harumaki ($4), a Japanese spring roll, is served in a martini glass with a kinked stem. Filled with a blend of cabbage, carrots, and other veggies, the three rolls are sliced diagonally into six crispy, light pieces that go down nicely with a little dab of the pale orange sweet and sour sauce.
The squid salad ($6) is delightful, too. It blends firm, chewy strands of marinated squid with cucumbers, red cabbage, and onions. With strips of pickled ginger and a light dressing that sparkles with sesame and soy, it's a cool, refreshing way to start a meal.
Once you turn your attention to the sushi menu, though, things begin to go south.
On my first visit, I ordered the Sushi Deluxe Platter ($20) to get a baseline on Fuji's repertoire. The platter includes the chef's choice of nine nigiri plus a California roll, and the selection that night was two salmon (sake), two tuna (maguro), two mackerel (saba), and one other, which may have been striped bass or snapper, but it was sort of hard to tell. Having pairs of nigiri on such a sampler would ordinarily be disappointing, since one usually would want to sample as wide a range of the chef's creations as possible. In this case, it barely mattered, since all the fish were pretty soft and almost flavorless, with no delight to the tooth or tongue and very little to differentiate themselves from one another.
The "Chef's Special" rolls are a different story. These range in price from $8 to $13, and the selection is dominated by the standard creations of Americanized sushi such as the rainbow roll, dynamite roll, and spider roll. On my first visit, the waitress recommended either the Manhattan Roll (shrimp tempura with spicy tuna wrapped with a crunchy outside, $11) or the Ultra Man Roll. The Ultra Man roll, ironically, was featured first on the menu's list, which seemed a particular place of honor, so I chose it.
The Ultra Man is named after the high-kitsch Japanese monster-battling television show from the 1960s, and it's fitting. The menu calls it a "sweet crunch roll." That sweet crunch, as best as I can tell, is bread crumbs soaked in an ultra-sweet brandy garlic butter, which is then rolled in nori with sushi rice on the outside, topped with a layer of thin, flat cooked shrimp, then more of the butter-soaked bread crumbs, then toasted. It's a stunningly oversweet, overrich, unpleasant concoction — pretty much the complete antithesis of the light, clean aesthetic that is normally associated with sushi. I battled the monster as best as I could but left it half eaten and walked out feeling overly stuffed.
But, that's the phenomenon of pop sushi. No longer an exotic food, sushi has taken a permanent place alongside pizza and tacos in the American diet, and it's been transformed in the process. It's not about the freshest, most exquisite, subtle nuances of flavor. It's an over-the-top phenomenon, with big portions and showy colors and dramatic presentation, from the reds and oranges and whites of the rainbow roll to the infinite multicolored squiggles of sauces drizzled from squeeze bottles. Loaded up with cream cheese, tempura, mayo, and avocado, this style trends toward the soft and the sweet and the fried, which has been the hallmark of the American palate for centuries.
But I wanted to give Fuji its due. On a later visit, I sat at the sushi bar to be as close to the chefs as possible, and waved away the server's helpful suggestions of two more "special" rolls (neither of them on the regular menu, but both featuring the same tempura-fried stuff and cream cheese that dominates the on-menu rolls). Instead, I went for a few of the more adventurous items on the menu, and I asked the sushi chefs for their recommendations.
Some of the items were unremarkable. The salmon roe was not nearly as crisp and popping as the really good stuff can be, and the spicy tuna was just a cylinder of spicy mush. The chefs' recommendations, though, were quite nice. The white tuna ($6) was firm and bright, and the rosy-tinged yellowtail ($6), handed directly over the counter so the fish was still cool and the sushi rice still slightly warm, had a pure, lemony sweet flavor. The giant clam (an item not on the regular menu) is expensive ($15), but its delicate, slightly-chewy texture and subtle flavor was quite pleasing.
The best example came from a tiny wooden raft on the top shelf of the sushi case — a small portion of butterscotch-yellow uni (sea urchin roe). It's not on the regular menu, either, but it was the freshest special of the day. It has a mild, complex flavor, and one that develops as you savor it, with the initially sharp tang melding into a surprisingly gentle sweetness that you want to linger on the tongue as long as possible.
And that's a long, long way from the Ultra Man roll.
It's hard to make a call on a place like Fuji. If your idea of fun is big, complicated rolls with crunchy bits and lots of colors washed down by a few gimmicky cocktails that blend sake with American liquors and sweet mixers, by all means have a seat and let the menu be your guide. If you're more interested in the clean, fresh subtleties of traditional sushi, you can find that at Fuji, too, but you'll have to work for it. Sit at the sushi bar, ignore the big rolls, and ask for things that aren't on the regular menu. You might just be surprised.