Sushi has shed its foreignness in the last 25 years, moving from sophisticated splurge to staple for many area diners. For them, sushi is a staff of life. When they change neighborhoods, they note where to get a reliable tuna roll like they map the nearest decent pizzeria or dry cleaner.
Since 2003, the sushi hunters of Amherst have been returning to Fuji Grill, in the Maple Forest Plaza a mile and a half east of the University at Buffalo’s Amherst campus. None of the restaurant’s tables are given over to the shrimp-flipping stunts of teppanyaki chefs, as at Fuji Grill’s newer satellites in Hamburg and Niagara Falls.
At this original location, it’s all about dealing Japanese hits fast, cheap and sure. It’s a neighborhood family restaurant that serves kicked-up sushi rolls instead of cheeseburgers, and tempura instead of french fries.
The room is wood-lined with red lanterns. Seating is offered at the sushi bar, booths, tables and a waiting area which was filled with patient family groups on the Saturday night after Thanksgiving. We settled into our table and started working through the lengthy menu and specials sheet.
[Photos: Mark Mulville's gallery from Fuji Grill]
There’s something for everybody: teriyaki, udon and soba noodles, in soup or fried, and Japanese entrees like tonkatsu (crispy deep fried pork or chicken cutlet, $12.95) and unagi don (broiled eel over rice, $18). There’s even General Tso’s chicken ($12.95), if Chinese is more your speed.
Sushi pieces on a lozenge of rice (nigiri) and by the naked slice (sashimi) can be ordered individually (most are $2 to $2.50 each) or in combinations. There’s also simple rolls (maki), with fish or vegetables rolled in rice and seaweed ($4-$6), nothing more elaborate than tempura-fried shrimp and fish flavored with spicy mayonnaise.
The creative side of the sushi menu is the “special rolls,” elaborate pythons hefty enough for entrees. They are a sight, sporting crazy-quilt rainbows of fish, blowtorched crusts or fried carapaces, and spicy sauces applied in racing stripes. I counted 61, including an edible rendition of Angry Birds done in spicy crab, shrimp and scallops ($14.95).
One artsy appetizer called Dinosaur Egg ($13.95, pictured as lead image) stuffs an avocado with mango and spicy crab and tuna mixtures, the package tempura-fried, split into quarters and dabbed with green and orange fish eggs, all served on a ruffled carpet of sauces. It was a fun little flavor bomb.
Age tofu ($4.95) was fried slices in a crispy tempura coat with seasoned soy sauce and a tuft of smoky shaved dried bonito, the Parmesan of japan. Able tempura skills were also on display in a tempura vegetable appetizer ($4.95) including pieces of sweet potato, onion and squash.
Even though we were four, the Love Boat ($42), intended as a meal for two, was a good vehicle for exploration of the traditional sushi seas. The snazzily decorated yard-long wooden boat was delivered bearing two rolls, 12 slices of sashimi and eight nigiri pieces, including salmon, yellowtail, tuna, striped bass, red snapper, albacore and “white tuna” or escolar.
The miso soup that came with it was mild and comforting; the small iceberg lettuce salad, cucumber and carrot threads in a watery carrot-ginger dressing seemed perfunctory.
The fish assortment was diverse enough for some tame exploration for raw fish first-timers. In quiet contemplation, we compared the echoes of rare steak in the tuna to how the sea refracts differently through albacore or red snapper. Escolar’s buttery white slices, enjoyable in small doses without negative effects, stood out for their richness.
Guests seeking louder flavors much preferred the rolls that came with the Love Boat, especially the Rock N Roll, made of mixed fish, imitation crab and scallions, with a crunch that made me think of fried chicken, and spicy mayonnaise and barbecue sauces.
The Hawaii Aloha special roll was another hit, with a core of tempura shrimp, followed by cucumber, mango and avocado, with more sauces doing the spicy-sweet ying-yang.
Their most elaborate – super special? – rolls play with layers of non-canonical ingredients and more sauces, like the Fall Roll ($14.95). It contained peppered tuna, goat cheese, mango and red onion, and was topped with spicy lobster-crab salad and crumbled wasabi wafers. Not traditional, but never boring.
For dessert, we continued on our tempura tear, with a legit tempura-fried green tea ice cream ($4.50). It was properly crispy outside and soft within, making it easy to get dairy and crust in each spoonful. Tempura-fried cheesecake was similarly successful. Disappointing espresso crème brulee ($6) was more of a pudding, oozing liquid, with no glassy caramel crust.
Fuji Grill serves solid sushi, terrific tempura and a broad supporting cast of Americanized Asian dishes. If you stop in for a roll and a bowl of noodles, you’ll see why the restaurant named for the tallest mountain in Japan has blended right into the neighborhood.
Andrew Galarneau's next restaurant review will appear Jan. 12.
Fuji Grill - 7 plates (out of 10)
Where: 736 Maple Road, Amherst (688-6199)
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, noon to 10 p.m. Sunday.
Price range: Appetizers and sushi pieces, $2-$10.95; sushi rolls, $4-$14.95; entrees, $9.95-$19.95
Wheelchair access: Yes
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