Sometimes you come across something at a restaurant that you like so much, you know that you'll order it every time you go. Sometimes it might even be the only reason you go back.
I sampled plenty of good food at Fuji Cafe, but it's in Collierville, which is off my beaten path. While I would recommend that you go there, chances of me going back would be slim except for one thing:
The stuffed jalapeño peppers in tempura batter.
Let's go ahead and call this fusion cuisine, but determining what is fused might be hard.
Japanese for the tempura. Southwestern for the jalapeño. There's whitefish, salmon and cream cheese
inside, so let's not forget the kosher deli element. The spicy and creamy squiggle across the top could pass for a thin Cajun mayo.
I'm not going to attempt to label it, but it's going on my list of favorite appetizers around town.
It starts with a bit more than half of a big, fresh jalapeño, split lengthwise. A mix of cream cheese, tuna, whitefish and salmon is tucked inside; then it's all coated in a delicate tempura batter and quickly fried. Four generous poppers come to an order, each topped with just enough of the creamy hot sauce.
If there are more than four people at your table, you'll need more than one order.
Fuji, in one of those strip centers that you can drive by again and again -- are street numbers a thing of the past? -- is cozy and comfortable, with subdued lighting, shoji screens and big padded booths. Friendly servers welcome you with a complimentary bowl of miso soup and bring you hot towels before your meal.
There is an extensive sushi menu, but this has come to be expected in Japanese restaurants and even in many Asian restaurants that don't serve another Japanese dish. I've lost heart, at least for now, for the massive rolls that are overstuffed, hard to eat, and more closely related to fried chicken than clean fish and perfect rice.
Fuji offers these, but also a good selection of simpler items, including a platter with a selection of nigiri (by the chef) and a simple roll (your choice from a few). The tuna, yellowtail and salmon were fresh and tasty, but the length of imitation crab meat on top of one bed of rice was a disappointment that remained on the plate. The rice was slightly too sweet, though not to the point of distraction.
It's fair to say that I would likely have enjoyed my platter more had I not just polished off most of the yumyum salad, a bowl of succulent pieces of fish (mostly salmon, in this case, with some scallop) mixed with lush bites of avocado, tossed in a light ponzu sauce and topped with slivers of green onion and tiny pearls of fish eggs.
We inadvertently overloaded on salad, as a house salad of iceberg lettuce, shredded carrots and a simple mayo-based dressing came with our entrees, and, further, we ordered the asparagus salad.
The latter was beautifully spare: Lightly steamed bits of asparagus, tossed with a light sauce of wasabi-infused cream and finished with just a touch of roe. Perfect.
I was underwhelmed by the yakiudon, pan-fried noodles served with a choice of chicken or shrimp. It was oddly smoky, a flavor that I noted again at lunch in the beef donburi. It was unexpected and off-putting, though the bento lunch was quite good in general. The house salad, a dollop of fried rice, several pieces of tempura, rice noodles in a light vinegar sauce and a pickle of fresh cucumber are all included with the entree, a bargain at about $8 to $9.
A word about the tempura: It's very, very good at Fuji. Not only is the batter light and very crisp, but the ingredients are also good. The obvious slice of sweet potato and onion share the plate with bell pepper and the real standout: broccoli. We have eaten too much steamed broccoli, people. Roast it at home, and see what a different vegetable it is than the ho-hum one you've come to know. At Fuji, the same tender caramelization is achieved by dipping it in batter and getting it very hot. It's delicious.
-- Jennifer Biggs: 529-5223
Address: 875 West Poplar in Collierville.
Telephone: (901) 854-7758.
Hours: Dinner hours: 4:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and 4:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Lunch is noon-3 p.m. Sunday and 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Reviewer's choices: Yumyum salad ($5.95); asparagus salad ($4.95); stuffed jalapeño ($6.95); bento boxes at lunch (prices vary); tempura (prices vary).
Alcohol: Beer and wine.
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars