211111FUJIPIC

The vast menu at Fuji Sushi & Hibachi in Middleton makes it a great option for those looking to satisfy cravings for Asian fare, writes Gazette restaurant reviewer Aaron R. Conklin.

MIDDLETON

Some places carry an air of instant relaxation, even when their location seems to suggest otherwise. You walk in the door, and you can almost feel your blood pressure drop—even before you’ve been seated or had the chance to scan the menu.

Unexpectedly, Fuji Sushi & Hibachi is one of those places. Even though it’s one of a surprisingly large number of eateries competing for the attention and appetites of weary shoppers at the upscale Greenway Station Mall in Middleton, Fuji’s atmosphere exudes comfort and relaxation.

Maybe it’s that the booths are rimmed with thick birch-tree shoots. Maybe it’s the gentle red and green lighting that seems to herald the approach of the holiday season, even though it’s a year-round effect and my visit occurred prior to Halloween.

Even when the place is packed and newcomers are wrangling 40-minute waits for tables, it’s the kind of place that convinces you to relax and enjoy.

Like most Asian restaurants, Fuji’s menu is massive with a ridiculous number of sushi, hibachi, udon or soba noodle dishes and traditional Japanese entrees. Constructing combo plates or opting for Bento boxes that give you the chance to sample swaths of the menu is the best way to avoid feeling overwhelmed.

Going the sushi route is also a solid choice. I’ve written before that one of my benchmarks for a sushi joint is the quality of its shrimp tempura rolls, and Fuji’s $7.95 version is satisfactory but not amazing.

The rolls held together well, but lacked a certain size and artistry: the shrimp tails were short, and the unagi sauce didn’t add much to the taste.

Fuji’s special rolls are a much more appealing story.

The Black Dragon roll ($14.95) seemed too tempting to ignore, even though it proved to be primarily green when it arrived in the to-go container. The mix of crabmeat and eel created some serious heft to the roll, and the spicy mayonnaise within kicked the first bite into overdrive, amplifying the flavors without ever overwhelming them.

Having briefly considered one of the more modest spicy maki (tuna, salmon or yellowtail), I was glad to have found my heat in this green-hued sushi treat. The special roll list here is rife with intriguing options such as this, the Highland Roll and the Green River Roll, of which the latter two come topped with spicy crabmeat.

Spicy seems to be one of the flavors Fuji handles best. Even the sweet and sour dipping sauce, as basic an element of a Japanese restaurant as you’re likely to find, carries an unexpectedly genuine spicy kick. And when paired with the cream-cheese heart of the appetizer menu’s Crab Rangoon ($6.50), it’s a truly delicious yin and yang, with the crispy crust of the pocket providing texture and crunch.

Rangoon is an easy place for a restaurant to cut corners—skimp on the filling, try to pass off a brittle or doughy casing—but Fuji gets it right. I found myself wishing I had gone for a second order.

Were it not for the bland California rolls that serve as one of the legs of Fuji’s array of dinner Bento boxes, it would be an easy, slam-dunk recommendation.

For around $20 (depending on your choice of meat or seafood), the options included are not only filling, but expansive. I opted for a box centered around a tender set of hibachi-grilled teriyaki scallops and was pleased to discover them both flavorful and large enough to satisfy.

The Bento boxes here also come with a large serving of tempura chicken and vegetables, a cup of miso soup and a salad with a pungent ginger dressing, four pieces of the aforementioned sushi, and a small set of shrimp shumai (think crispy dumplings). Most of us think of Bento boxes as a streamlined sampler plate. At Fuji, it’s a full-on meal, and then some.

That tempura batter—a crisp, thick covering that held up to the tempura dip—made me think investing in a full tempura entrée (chicken or shrimp, both $16) would be a good bet for a future visit.

Aaron R. Conklin is a freelance writer based in Madison. He has written about food, theater and pop culture for publications such as Isthmus, the Wisconsin State Journal and Madison Magazine.

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