Sushi from the Ashes

Fuji-Ya
2640 Lyndale Ave. S., Mpls.; 871-4055

Melissa Hanson knows exactly what she wants out of life. "Tako, Mommy," she pleads, "tako, tako," as her mom, Carol Weston Hanson, tries to conduct a morning phone interview. When Weston Hanson insists that she wait and play quietly, Melissa retreats, but I can still hear her little bell of a voice as she plays in the restaurant: "Tako! Tako! Tahhh-kohhh!" And I'd bet the farm that she's the only 4-year-old in town devoting her morning to the urgent pursuit of octopus tentacles.

The Fuji-Ya on Lyndale is the newest incarnation of the pioneering Twin Cities restaurant first opened in 1959 by Weston Hanson's mother, Reiko Weston, and her parents, Japanese immigrants Kaoru and Nobuko Umetani. That first restaurant seated only 25 people, in a basement on LaSalle near Eighth Street. Surprising everyone involved, Eisenhower-era Minneapolis turned out to be primed for Japanese food, and the little place took off, requiring all members of the family to pitch in with running it and ultimately prompting a move to a giant, 400-seat space on the west bank of the Mississippi near the Stone Arch Bridge. Fuji-Ya even spawned a St. Paul branch, Fuji 2.

Carol Weston Hanson was raised in those Fuji-Ya's, helping out in every part of the restaurant, munching tempura as an after-school snack, being sung to sleep at night by her grandfather, Kaoru, a former rear admiral in the Japanese Navy. But in 1988, at the same time Fuji-Ya was being forced from its downtown location, Reiko Weston died, and Carol, still in college, had to shut down the restaurant.

Now, phoenixlike, Fuji-Ya lives again, opened last winter by Carol Weston Hanson in an elegant, sand-colored space on Lyndale Avenue. "So many, many people walk in the door and the first words out of their mouths are 'I remember when...'" says Weston Hanson. Some even come in carrying a piece of origami made by her grandfather, who died in 1963. "I wish I had a piece!" Weston Hanson laments.

Sitting in the airy room on Lyndale, listening to the trickle of a bamboo-and-stone fountain, gazing at the Zen-simple bare wood ornaments, you can feel the satisfaction of a family restored to its rightful environment. Unfortunately, the restaurant, so long on charm and heartwarming family tales, is decidedly lackluster when it comes to food and service.

My biggest problems were with the sushi. First, the servers on my visits didn't know anything about the food they were serving: I asked one what "maguro albacore" was and she took my menu and read me the translation. It said, "white tuna." No duh. (At home with my reference books I discovered that albacore is a small variety of tuna, which weighs from 10 to 60 pounds, has a pale flesh, and is usually known in sushi bars as shiro maguro. It tastes very mild, with a subdued mackerel-like flavor.)

When I asked a different server on another visit what made up the Regular ($15.95) versus Deluxe ($18.95) sushi platters, he replied that he didn't know and couldn't find out, because no one would tell him. The same man later presented the deep-fried shrimp heads that traditionally accompany ama ebi, sweet shrimp, saying "I don't know why they wanted me to give these to you." Then he made a disgusted face: "I guess you're supposed to eat them, but they've got eyes." Why, thanks, thanks so much.

Ask any server whether a particular fish is fresh that day--a customary question in sushi bars--and you'll always get the answer: "Everything's fresh every day." Which is patently untrue, and not even possible or expected, because of the precarious nature of fishing and airline schedules. On my visits some pieces of sushi arrived that were clearly past-prime: vaguely stinky, just barely slimy, the kind of thing that left a table full of sushi lovers appalled. Like most really annoying problems, this one is intermittent: One night my tuna sashimi ($7.50) was perfectly fresh and delicious; another it had clearly been frozen at a relatively high temperature and then thawed, a process that gives fish a grainy, unpleasant texture as ice crystals rupture the flesh. (I've read that fish can be frozen at subzero temperatures with no extreme ill effect to the taste, and that most fish is frozen directly after being caught, but this wasn't that.)

Even Fuji-Ya's cooked rolls seem ham-handed. My caterpillar roll ($8.95), in which paper-thin slices of avocado served as a shell to rice rolled around a core of unagi, cooked eel, was drenched with a thick, sweet sauce; on a different visit a salmon skin roll ($5.50), cooked salmon and watercress, fell apart when touched. However, on two occasions the California rolls ($5.50), crab meat and avocado wrapped in rice and topped with fish roe, were very good. I didn't try the tako ($3.95), but now I wish I had.

The problem with Fuji-Ya's sushi menu is that it's far too ambitious--45 items are on the permanent list--for what the restaurant is able to deliver. I think we would all be happier if they limited the list to cooked items or vegetable items, and offered the raw fish only as a daily special to reflect what's fresh.

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