By Adam Strunk
Dani Lin carries on the conversation about the ins and outs of sushi as he neatly forms rice in a thick line down a sheet of seaweed. He stands at his work station surrounded by colorful chunks of red, pink and white raw fish.
With a few quick motions, the little line now spreads over the green rectangle. Three flicks of his knife later and some avocados are cut and placed on the sheet.
“It looks easy, but it takes years of practice,” he says, rolling the sheet in a bamboo mat, forming it into a square, and after a few more knife flicks, it sits on the plate in six perfectly even pieces.
He places a dab of wasabi and pickled ginger and it’s out to a customer.
The whole process takes him 30 seconds.
Lin’s quick work comes from three years spent training in Japan and more than 10 years making sushi in restaurants in New York and Minnesota.
And he’s now part of a trio of Minnesota transplants in Newton as a partner in Fuji Japanese Bistro.
The other two include Ken Chong, who runs the front of the house, and Tim Chang, who runs the kitchen in the back. The three met working at a Japanese restaurant called Osaka and decided to take the plunge and open a Japanese restaurant together.
“We had to change our lives; we had to do our own business; we try to invest,” Chong said. “Each skill is different.”
Chong said the group did market research and believes there’s a niche in Newton for the restaurant.
“We had to try something different. And bring some new stuff in Newton,” he said.
The restaurant operates in the previous location of Asian buffets such as Jackie Chan’s. Chong said that while that may be the expectation of people, it’s not what the restaurant does.
“The buffet is too boring,” he said. “That’s been around a long time. This is something different.”
Chong is right that it is a singular dining experience in Newton. It’s a sit-down restaurant that offers mostly Japanese dishes, including tempura, seaweed salad, sushi, sashimi—chunks of raw fish served with rice—udon noodles, miso soup and yakisoba.
There’s an emphasis on presentation, whether it’s the cherry on top of a seaweed salad, the long tempura fried pieces of shrimp formed into a teepee by a fried onion ring or the dipping sauce and carrot garnish that comes with probably the most common place thing on the menu, crab Rangoon.
Chong thinks that sushi is growing in popularity and the restaurant can build up a customer base, exposing people to the dishes and converting them using good, fresh ingredients.
“Sushi is popular right now and healthy and more tasty,” he said, adding that people still eat a lot of hibachi-grilled and tempura-fried items.
He said with his raw items it’s often about providing exposure to people, and he gets asked a lot what sushi or raw fish tastes like.
“I say it tastes good,” he said with a laugh.
Chong said usually it’s fish people are familiar with that they’ll try first raw, like salmon, and then tuna.
Don’t expect to see any fish more familiar than that on the menu. He laughed when asked about a locally sourced catfish roll. He said regulations prevent him from serving freshwater fish, which doesn’t taste as good raw. The raw menu is composed of all saltwater creatures, coming mostly from colder waters.
“Coldwater fish is best,” he said. “We have fresh fish. We order fish from Texas usually.”
For the less adventurous, there are plenty of cooked rolls, like the specialty cowboy roll, one of Lin and Chong’s favorites, which includes shrimp, avocado, cream cheese and filet mignon.
Lin said the tempura fried rolls the restaurant serves are also popular items. Chang is the star of that show, breading just about everything—shrimp, chicken, broccoli, squash, carrot—and serving it up light and crisp.
The menu has a wide variety of options, and on the sushi side, Lin said he has most of the recipes in his head. He added that his time working the businesses gives him a good idea of what the customers like and what will sell.
The group is banking on understanding what Newton customers like and making a go of it. It’s turned into a fairly popular lunch location early on, offering under $10 lunch “box” meals that include soup, salad, rice, a California roll, shrimp dumpling or crab Rangoon, half an orange and an entree such as shrimp or chicken tempura.
Chong said business is still growing, and he hopes to keep it that way by serving good food and providing good service. It’s his job to ensure both, and customers can see him constantly moving around, speaking with patrons, pitching in on service and working on quality control.
“We try to know they are happy when they leave,” he said. “We try to have very fresh stuff. Fresh is better.”