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Sushi from the Ashes

Cory Rasmussen

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.

As for the rest of the menu, it offers strictly pedestrian fare, like a distinctly undelicate sukiyaki ($13.50)--in which slices of unattractively fatty beef crowd a bowl along with rice noodles, tofu, a clump of enoki mushrooms, and a salty broth--along with Eisenhower-era Japanese specialties like chicken and steak teriyaki ($10.95 and $14.50). The best choices are the tempuras and the noodles. Fuji-Ya's tempuras are pale-battered and light, and come in generous piles. The shrimp tempura ($14.50) is tender and nonrubbery; the vegetable tempura ($10.75) includes treats such as slices of sweet potato and bunches of crisp and springy parsley.

The biggest bargains are the combination tempura-noodle dishes: You are served a bowl of noodle soup either with udon (wheat) or soba (buckwheat) noodles, accompanied by a generous side of tempura shrimp and various vegetables ($8.95), or just plain tempura vegetables ($7.95). In fact, noodles are one of Carol Weston Hanson's passions. She says she imports them from Chicago, trying to match the handmade-noodle shop she always visits around the corner from her grandmother's house in Tokyo.

When I told Weston Hanson about my disappointments with the service and sushi, she readily acknowledged the problems the restaurant has had, but insisted that Fuji-Ya is "a work in progress, and I hope that everybody can bear with us, because we're trying. There are days when everything seems like it's two steps forward and one step back, but I feel like every week things are starting to work a little better, look a little better, and taste a lot better." Her proudest achievement, Weston Hanson says, is having created a family-friendly venue with a children's menu featuring her own childhood favorites like skewers of yaki-tori, boneless pieces of chicken skewered, marinated, and broiled ($3.95).

It's true that the restaurant is a very pleasant place to pass time, and if Weston Hanson debuts the new menu she promises--full of original vegetarian options and bento boxes--and if she gets the service and sushi situations in hand, I could see this Fuji-Ya enduring until young Melissa founds her own restaurant. She certainly has the enthusiasm for it: By the time I ended my conversation with Weston Hanson, Minnesota's most ardent octopus fan had been given some trim ends from the cooler, and while Weston Hanson said "For me, this restaurant feels like I've come back home," delighted chirps of "Tako! Tako!" echoed behind her, emphasizing the point.

TABLEHOPPING

AQUAVIT IS COMING! Did you know Aquavit, New York City's preeminent Swedish restaurant, is opening a branch here? Well that's the old news. The new news? It's going into the north end of the ground floor of the IDS Center and construction has already started; the chef will be the New York Aquavit's current sous chef, Roger Johnsson; the restaurant will feature a fancy dining room, a café for casual dining, and a bar featuring 20 varieties of Aquavit (what else?) and a long list of vodkas and beers. Prices will be lower than the New York location (phew!); lunch and dinner will be served; free parking is promised; and the layout will feature not exactly an open kitchen, but a highly visible one. Diners wanting to get right up in the action will be able to reserve a chef's table in the kitchen for up to 10 people. That's all I can tell you so far, and after a conversation with velvet-voiced Aquavit owner Håkan Swahn, I couldn't be more charmed: "A lot of things have happened in Minneapolis in the restaurant scene in the last few years, and it's a very sophisticated community [purr, purr] that we will fit in with nicely."

But don't look for a lot of fanfare at the opening: Swahn promises it will be a low-publicity event. "One of my pet peeves is a restaurant that opens with a full house on day one. It only leads to disappointment and stress. We plan to build it up gradually. We may not even be open for both lunch and dinner at first. This will be a long-term project which is going to be there for many years. It's better to build it up slowly." Oh, and lutefisk? "That's the one thing we're not serving," said Swahn, and I could just hear him grimacing all the way from New York.  

SPA COOKING: Ever walk into a small business and seen a sign that reads: "Fast, Cheap, or Done Right: Pick Two"? Well there's a parallel threesome in contemporary cooking: Low-Fat, Delicious, and Easily Made. Sue Kreitzman tries to nail all the holy three in her new Low Fat For Life Cookbook (DK Publishing, $24.95), with mixed results. Many of the recipes are preposterously time-consuming, and some are deceptive in one way or another--presuming minuscule serving sizes, insisting that you can "fry" things with a spray-bottled mix of seven parts water and one part oil, skimping on necessary ingredients: A vegetable stir-fry calls for two heads of cauliflower, four red peppers, and the flesh from four (!) black olives. It's Where's Waldo? for cooks. And yet, about a quarter of Kreitzman's 150-plus recipes actually do hit the elusive trinity, like the following dessert. It makes me hopeful for the future.

Strawberries in Lemon Balsamic Syrup

* 1/4 cup lemon juice

* 1 to 2 tablespoons sugar

* 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

* 2 pints strawberries, hulled and quartered

Put the lemon juice in a bowl. Add the sugar, stir, and let sit until the sugar has dissolved. Stir in the balsamic vinegar. Toss the strawberries in the mixture until thoroughly combined. Let sit, stirring occasionally, until the strawberries are bathed in a syrupy sauce. (The amount of sugar depends on the quality of the vinegar, so taste as you go.) Makes four servings containing 55 calories and 8 milligrams of sodium each.


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