Don’t let the generic strip mall location fool you. On the inside, Ai Fuji is a sprawling space whose designers have pulled out all the stops to create a setting as grandiose as its majestic mountain of a namesake.
But it’s not as serene. Granted, the massive craggy stone fountain that greets you just inside the door is a conspicuous bow to nature. So, in a more understated way, are the the dark woods and rice paper screens of a compact dining room and three tatami rooms. On either side of the fountain, however, flashing red and green neon lights frame the entrance to two cavernous rooms awash with a stainless steel sea of teppanyaki steakhouse tables. Along the far right wall, the sushi bar glows beneath a long neon ribbon of cobalt blue. Beyond, a bartender mixes cocktails as colorful as the lighting.
Taking it all in, you might guess that the menu is an all-encompassing survey of the Japanese repertoire. You’d be right. In addition to the sushi bar and steakhouse fare, Ai Fuji’s encyclopedic offering covers all the bases from gyoza to tempura to teriyaki to udon, as well as a few less commonly seen dishes such as chicken shogayaki and calamari katsu. But for all the sweeping breadth of its offering, the food at Ai Fuji too often fails to live up to the gaudy promise of the setting.
My first visit got off to an inauspicious start with a small iceberg salad that was so heavily doused with a mayonnaise-y ginger dressing that fully a quarter cup puddled in the bottom of the bowl – a flaw that has been repeated with disquieting precision on every subsequent visit. At least they’re consistent.
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Unfortunately, consistency is not a hallmark of the sushi bar. On two separate occasions, much of what I ordered was marked by uneven knife-work and widely variable quality of fish. A yellowtail roll was so inexpertly assembled that the first piece fell apart when I touched it with chopsticks.
For its part, the kitchen gave a reasonably good accounting of itself. The batter was too dense on tempura vegetables, but a much lighter panko crust on tempura shrimp was on point. The same tempura shrimp played a cameo role atop a bowl of nabeyaki udon, where it garnished a delicate broth chockablock with fish cake, kani (imitation crabmeat), poached egg, chewy-tender noodles and a moist, generously peppered strip of grilled chicken breast.
Based largely on the kitchen’s performance, I was cautiously optimistic about my next visit, when I planned to discover what those teppanyaki tables had to offer. After all, the Japanese steakhouse experience is as much about the show as the quality of the food, right? What could go wrong?
Here’s what. You start by being served that egregiously over-dressed salad and a bowl of bland onion soup. When the teppanyaki chef shows up, a half hour after you were seated, he discovers that the grill is cold, then mutters something about the pilot light. Everyone is moved to another table, with apologies.
Now trying to make up for lost time, the chef starts cooking before the grill at this table is properly hot. Eggs, first to hit the griddle, are embarrassingly slow to cook sufficiently for scrambling before they’re finally folded into what will become unexceptional fried rice. The stir-fried vegetables that follow earn bonus points for their variety, then lose them by being cooked too low and slow.
Over the course of the meal, the chef’s inexperience becomes more and more evident. He cuts hibachi steak (presumably rib-eye) into such small pieces that his failure to cook it anywhere near the requested medium-rare is all but guaranteed. Filet, on the other hand, gets cut into larger pieces and is more successful. Chicken languishes so long off to the side that it’s dry by the time it hits your plate. But scallops get the chef’s undivided attention for the brief cooking time they need, and turn out to be the surprise hit of the meal.
Only afterward does the chef remember the hibachi shrimp, which are included in the price and are traditionally served at the start of the meal. He quickly cooks them up and serves them, two per person.
But he doesn’t make a show of cutting them up at lightning speed, nor does he flip a shrimp tail into his hat. The young chef is pleasant enough, mind you, but his lack of experience shows even more in the minimal show that he puts on, a show that amounts to little more than a tentative effort at an onion “volcano” and a half-hearted attempt to extinguish the fire with a little peeing-boy squeeze doll.
Meanwhile, at a neighboring table, twirling knives and an onion volcano erupting nearly to the ceiling are dramatic evidence that Ai Fuji does in fact have at least one veteran teppanyaki chef on staff. Until they train a few more, though, I think it would be a good idea to leave most of those pilot lights in the off position.
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