We know we shouldn’t do it, but sometimes it’s hard not to judge a book by its cover.
I found myself doing just that at a new sushi and Japanese restaurant in a Salinas strip mall.
It’s not much from the outside – a plain building with almost no decorations and views of the huge parking lot.
But a step inside changes everything.
My friend and I were greeted by friendly staff and warmly colored walls that complement the dark furniture and minimalist decorations, presenting a sense of finer dining without – as we learned later – the matching price tag. The sushi bar’s dark colors match the motif, and wood sushi boats on shelves behind it and glass display cases full of colorful raw fish help it stand out. Through the windows at the end of the room appears the hibachi area, where tables are neatly set around six shiny grills.
Sisters-in-law Annie Lin and Jessie Ni own and operate the place. After working at the family’s other Japanese restaurant, a Fujiyama in Wisconsin, they opened this spring.
Their menu comes filled with options like noodles, sushi, dinner and lunch specials, hibachi entrees and teriyaki that fill a total of eight big pages.
We decided to start with some tempura udon ($10.95) and yaki udon ($10.95) lunch specials, preceded by beef negimaki ($7.95) and followed by a chef special sushi roll, the godzilla roll ($12.95).
First up was the negimaki, with thin strips of dark beef wrapped around green scallions and cheese – like some would wrap bacon around a date or prosciutto around asparagus. The sauce was a real hit, created with a mixture of soy sauce, sake and mirin (Japanese wine) and swirled around the base of the meat. The tender texture of the beef just melted.
When the main dishes came out, our eyes feasted immediately – and I felt just fine for judging appearances. Presentation is a definite strength here.
My udon filled the huge ceramic bowl to the top with a steaming vegetable broth, thick noodles and a bit of bright radish, crab meat and mushrooms adding complexity and a pop of color. The tempura comes on the side.
My friend’s yaki udon arrived with a mound of pan-fried noodles mixed with chicken accompanied by kale, carrots and a radish. Thick and covered in a light soy-based sauce, the noodles were great to slurp, even though her udon wasn’t a soup.
And the portions were huge. We were both eating leftover noodles the next day.
The Godzilla roll arrived next and lived up to its name – with 14 pieces, the double roll could have been a meal by itself. Laid out on a long rectangular plate, the tuna, salmon and whitefish came wrapped in seaweed and deep fried. Gorgeous – with bright orange masago crowning the roll, and eel sauce and spicy sauce striping the colorful fish on beautiful glass plates – and it tasted just as good as it looked.
The second time I visited, it was hibachi time. The grill area feels like its own restaurant, even with the similar dark wood and warm orange walls. Though it was 4pm, the grills were already getting filled up for an early dinner.
I was seated with a family with three young kids, who could not hide their excitement over watching someone cook right before their very eyes. When the steaming onion tower got puffing and the cook started flipping eggs with his spatula, there was nothing cooler in the world to them. Around the room, I saw more than just the kids watching with joy.
I went with the chicken hibachi dinner ($12.95 includes an appetizer, miso soup and a basic ginger-dressing salad); other selections included combinations of shrimp, steak, salmon, red snapper or scallops.
Bringing in brightly colored vegetables, meat and a huge bowl of rice on a cart, the chef was quick and diligent in creating everything with a flourish.
Before I knew it, I had a shrimp appetizer, fried rice, vegetables and chicken all grilled and ready to dip in the three sauces (shrimp sauce, mustard sauce and ginger). A ton of value for the price tag.
The next time I was craving some sushi, I decided to try out the take-out.
The online menu was easy to read and no take-out fees come into play. Some family members and I went for sake maki ($12.95), a sweetheart roll ($14.95) and rice ($4), and Fujiyama’s chefs were spot on with the estimate of 25 minutes.
The sake maki consists of tempura salmon and avocado, topped with crab meat, masago and spicy sauce. The sweetheart roll holds shrimp tempura and crabmeat inside and has green avocado and raw shrimp on top. The rolls were devoured soon after they arrived.
In short, there’s a lot to like at Fujiyama: The arrangement of the food on beautiful plates and bowls, the simplistic design, the relaxed atmosphere, the hibachi festivities and the reasonable prices. And there’s that lesson that comes complimentary: Why spend time judging appearances when you could be eating?
FUJIYAMA SUSHI & HIBACHI 1000 N. Davis Road, Salinas. 11am-2:30pm, 4-10pm Mon-Thu; 11am-2:30pm , 4-11pm Fri-Sat; noon-9:30pm Sun. 422-6888, www.fujiyamasalinas.com