Beneath a simple awning embellished with kanji, the restaurant window glows with the lights of tableside lamps, while a sushi chef works at a blond-wood sushi bar. Yet at Little Italy's latest Asian restaurant, the Japanese Fukuda, all is not as traditional as the first glance suggests. The lamps are not bamboo and rice paper, but translucent plastic printed with enlarged fragments of text and imagery, Andy Warhol-style. Tacked to the wall, where we might expect to find a calligraphy scroll, are overlapping sheets of torn floral wallpaper in a display of punk shabby-chic. The sushi is served on slabs of slate, not raku-fired dishes, and the sushi chef is a Caucasian woman.
Let these updates prepare you for a menu that is inspired as much by modern American cuisine as it is by ancient Japanese tradition. At Fukuda, roasted beets are powdered, kale is crisped, and pork belly gets its own entrée.
Perhaps the word "entrée" is a bit misleading. Fukuda's brief menu is organized into hot, cold and "special" dishes, and most every portion is of a size we usually associate with appetizers. This wasn't noted on the menu, leading us initially to expect the specials to be more like entrées. But once we understood Fukuda's tapas-like, a la carte approach, we found it ideal for sampling a menu that spans traditional sushi, charcoal-grilled skewers, ramen soup and neatly prepared, sliced proteins.
And while the flavors hew closely to those of traditional Japanese preparations, executive chef Matt Kemp isn't afraid to up the ante on any item, whether by grilling edamame (a delicious innovation that we'll be trying at home), toasting shiitake slices into crisp chips, or applying foie gras butter to the traditional street snack of grilled octopus (takoyaki). The result is brilliance. Perhaps it was the attention to detail afforded by the gem-like portions, or perhaps the Japanese ethos of everything being just so, but all offerings were cooked to perfection, flavored so that each component balanced every other, and plated beautifully, to boot.
A cold slab of tofu was saved from vegetarian drudgery by salty-peppery shards of crispy kale, pungent garlic, nutty sesame oil, savory sambal and katsuobushi (shaved fish flakes).
Another cold dish featured rare slices of tender, rich duck meat in house-made ponzu, or citrus soy sauce. Grilled strips of scallion formed a smoky bed for the meat, while crisped shiitake slices provided a snappy, slightly earthy counterpoint to the salty-tart ponzu.
To describe chicken robatayaki as chicken skewers is to give an impression of ordinariness, when in fact the morsels of chicken were impossibly juicy and coated with a bold abundance of salt and pepper that nonetheless did not overwhelm the mild meat; presumably the hot grill was the secret to their success.
Ramen, likewise, put the packaged soup usually associated with this name to shame. The broth was densely fortified with poached egg, scallions, garlic paste, simmered young bamboo and succulent, fatty pork belly, in addition to a satisfying skein of the eponymous noodles.
Pork belly was also available outside of soup, in a simmered preparation. The kitchen handled it nicely by laying it, fat-side down, on a drizzle of spicy mustard sauce; the fat and sauce almost melted into one another, so that the richness of the meat blended seamlessly into the spicy kick of the mustard, while cilantro, chili and crispy ginger added top notes. It was so delicious that we didn't want to see it go, yet so rich and intense that eight small slices were ample.
The aforementioned takoyaki was served as a trio of tiny octopi, each encased in a sort of soft dumpling of foie gras butter, dolloped with house-made, Worcestershire-like takoyaki sauce. This was sprinkled with burgundy beet powder and paper-thin shaved scallion, adding hints of pungent brightness to this rich dish.
In addition to the kitchen menu, Fukuda serves sushi and sashimi. The standout of our order was the ikura (Skuna Bay roe), served "battleship" style, with a seaweed wrap to keep the little scarlet bubbles atop their rice; an optional quail egg was a wonderful addition, its rich yolk playing off the salty brightness of the roe. A hamachi-negi (yellowtail-scallion) roll was also excellent, showcasing the excellent quality of the sushi bar's fresh fish.
For those who think Japanese food is either too exciting (raw eel!) or not exciting enough (teriyaki salmon), there is Fukuda. It rests comfortably between the extremes, and there is no place else like it in Pittsburgh.