What's sushi without a little subterfuge?
I'm not talking stealth ninja skills, though culinarily speaking, some of those are present in Fusion Japan's specialty rolls. I'm specifically talking about how owner Lilly Zhuo dresses and acts like one of the wait staff at Woodland Park's new Japanese/Thai eatery.
She does so, she explains, in order to garner true feedback from customers. She believes people will always give higher-ups lip service — generic lines like "It's good." Servers, she feels, receive the real gripes and groans, or are at least close enough to the tables to hear them in passing. Zhuo wants to know, and to fix problems.
It's after my second visit, when introducing myself to our waitress and inquiring about the owner, that Zhuo grabs my arm and leads me outside to reveal herself, serious behind a proud, wide smile. And she should be pleased, this being her family's third restaurant in the region (one former, sold in Pueblo; another still open in metro Denver) with a fourth, Fuji Mountain, opening soon at 16064 Jackson Creek Parkway in Monument.
After emigrating from southern China to Virginia at age 18, and learning English by working in Chinese restaurants, Zhuo, now 33, calls Woodland Park home. And like many residents, she's noticed the lack of food diversity in town, with two Chinese restaurants but no other Asian cuisine — hence the idea for Fusion Japan.
Laudably, the relatively affordable restaurant is MSG-free. And thanks in part to young sushi chef Rongrun "Wayne" Huang, who's studied the craft from San Francisco to New York, the sushi list bears some fun touches.
Think crunchy walnuts with crispy shrimp tempura and creamy avocado in the walnut-prawn roll ($8.95). Or, in the Hanade Roll ($9.95), a delicious, bright, beautiful mess of tobiko (fish eggs), four different garnish sauces and delicate scallion rounds topping salmon, yellowtail and fried spicy tuna. And finally, the Banana Island dessert roll ($12.95), where warmed unagi (eel) and mashed banana meld with avocado, wrapped in yellow soybean paper instead of nori (seaweed) and molded into triangles instead of rounds. They stand on the plate as if in tribute to the iconic mountain ranges of classic Japanese woodblock prints, and they're as good as they are sweetly weird.
The simple sweet potato tempura roll ($4.25), pleasantly served with the tuber al dente, is for the less adventurous lovers of savory sugar, and the house caterpillar roll ($10.25) is as cute and satisfying as most other outfits'. The handful of nigiri pieces (tuna, salmon, snapper) we sampled were as fresh and well-cut as anyone else's in town, as well.
With an exception made for the incredibly delicious peanut sauce curry ($6.95/$9.95), which is bathe-in-the-broth awesome, the hibachi and Thai offerings register as somewhat less exciting. The Thai-style beef ($6.95) bears tender meat and a little heat and is just fine, as is the soy-sesame-and-black-pepper-potent hibachi scallop and vegetable lunch entrée ($8.95). But Fusion's pad Thai rendition ($6.95/$8.95) is disappointing: heavy and overly wet, lacking cilantro, lime and fresh bean sprout crunch. And the Thai iced tea ($2.50) needs work, too, as it's slightly under-sweet and under-creamy, tasting mostly like an iced version of the base tea. Though synthetic-tasting, the bizarre-glassed Japanese sodas ($2.50) are more experience-shaping.
But for the overall experience, Fusion Japan is already easily one of the small city's top eateries; there's no being stealthy about that.