April 19-25, 2006

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First Bite


By Milo-Celeste Knutsen

The status of sushi restaurants in Napa bears resemblance to that of the spinytail skate, an endangered creature prowling the depths of the Atlantic. In other words, raw-fish eateries in Napa exist, but are so scarce that if these restaurants composed their own living species, extinction would be imminent. In fact, there are exactly two sushi restaurants in all of Napa Valley. The older of the two restaurants, Fujiya, rests obscurely in the Napa Premium Outlets strip mall; but Fujiya first staked out its claim in Napa 19 years ago, before any of its discount neighbors arrived.

At the end of a recent weekend, my boyfriend and I headed into the eerily deserted shopping center at a quarter to nine, hoping that we weren't too late again. Surprisingly, four tables were still occupied--that's hoppin' for a Sunday night in Napa.

Fujiya's menu bulges with sushi, nigiri and cooked Japanese food choices, but sadly lacks my favorite cut of fish: maguro toro, tuna's fatty belly. While reading rules about drinking miso soup directly from the bowl, we munched on complimentary sliced pickled cabbage. We ordered green tea (free), which Fujiya nails, and the hot house sake (large, $5.75), which, though not a standout, perfectly served our purposes as a cheap accompaniment to dinner.

After wiping our hands with the traditional steaming hot towels, we dove in. Both of our meals came with miso soup, but while the firm tofu cubes tasted fresh, the broth was on the salty side and contained no seaweed. The salads that also accompanied our meals fused West and East: iceberg lettuce, cucs and tomato topped with a flavorful, creamy, tahini-based dressing. We also plowed through the tasty emerald strands of a sesame-seed-dotted seaweed salad ($5.25) that we can't resist ordering.

The mains came out on very Western, pastel-painted plates, rather than the more traditional wood blocks or Japanese ceramics to which we're accustomed. (Nevertheless, we far prefer Fujiya's dinnerware to a stripper's torso, which recently bore the sashimi at a friend's going-away party.)

Trying to taste everything, I splurged on the Fujiya Deluxe combination dish ($23.95), which substituted the California roll for a beautiful Rainbow Roll ($4 extra). The Deluxe's foolproof octopus and tobiko (flying fish roe) both had the right consistency, but standouts were the almost buttery yellow tail, the lemony snapper, the pearly scallop and the smooth salmon. The red and yellow tunas are not as firm or tasty as I would like, but then again it was Sunday, the least optimal day for sushi (sorry, Fujiya). My boyfriend liked his tempura dish ($14.50), with its light, crispy texture of the deep-fried shrimp, sweet potato, zucchini and squash.

We really wanted to like Fujiya. In general, the food was good--not blow-me-out-of-the-water good--but solid. Unfortunately, the restaurant's low-cost neighbors have not influenced the menu's hefty prices, which belie the fish's quality a bit. But the restaurant is so venerable, and its charming owner, Eiko Nakamura, has such a good rapport with her waitstaff and patrons that it's easy to justify looking beyond its shortcomings. And as a sushi lover living in Napa, I have to like it--it's one of only two in town.

Fujiya, 921 Factory Stores Drive, Napa. Lunch and dinner, Tuesday through Sunday. 707.257.0639.

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Quick-and-dirty dashes through North Bay restaurants. These aren't your standard "bring five friends and order everything on the menu" dining reviews.