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Dining for $25 or less: Fuji San

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Fuji San is an agreeable, little, 10-table Thai restaurant. It doesn't give much in the way of ambience and, in return, it doesn't ask much of its customers. It's a good option for a hot summer night when you feel like getting out of the house but don't want to invest too much energy into dressing up or feel like performing the role of Mr. and Mrs. Restaurant Patron. It completes the sentence, "You know what, babe, let's just go to _____."

Open now for about 2 1/2 years, Fuji San is the fourth and newest restaurant in the Sesum family's modest empire, which includes Thai One On/San Sushi Too in Towson and a similarly named and themed hybrid restaurant in Canton. The eldest restaurant, Sushi San, is on York Road in Cockeysville, and Fuji San is in a strip mall just a few traffic lights north and across the street from it, sandwiched between a Starbucks and a Cold Stone Creamery.

In the way of the youngest child, there is something a little hand-me-down about Fuji San. There's a waist-high dividing wall extending from the entrance, where something shoulder-high would better set apart the dining area. You walk in and say, "Oh!" The dining room itself has been painted a digestive blue; a few colored globe lights have been suspended from the ceiling and, except for the somewhat darkened L-shaped sushi bar in the corner, that's about it. Still, it feels well tended, and white cloths and napkins on the tables help smooth over some rough edges, like the faraway sound of tinkling recorded music.

When we visited on a Saturday night, Fuji San was doing steady business, with a diverse assortment of groupings - double-dating academics, small and large parties of millennials, a young couple with a beautiful baby and a family of four with two perfectly behaved children. Everyone seemed relaxed and content, disappointed only when they had forgotten Fuji San's BYOB policy.

Fuji San's menu will look familiar to even the most casual Thai diner. There are the standard two dozen classic stir-fries and curry dishes, into which you add chicken, pork or tofu (mostly $10.95), or beef, shrimp, scallops, calamari or duck ($12.95); a selection of rice and noodle dishes; and abundant choices of appetizers, soups and salads.

I like having choices, but there's something about having this particular kind of extensive menu in a small restaurant I find disengaging. For instance, it was weird seeing a vegetable as random as acorn squash show up as an ingredient in only one dish, a spicy Thai honey stir-fry ($16.95), which also lists string beans, asparagus, red pepper and scallions, along with the featured shrimp and scallops. If there was acorn squash in the finished product, we couldn't find it, which was less a problem than it was a reality check. As it was, this dish was a little ordinary, even a bit chaotic, without any interesting play of honey-sweet and chili-spicy.

That was the case almost across the board, but in fairness, we ordered wildly, taking some chances with house specialties (aka more expensive stuff) and other nonstandard selections. Our second entree, Pad Ma Keau Yaw ($15.95), sounded like a doozy - eggplant with jumbo shrimp and ground pork stir-fried with garlic, basil leaves and onion. Great if it works, but these disparate ingredients didn't assemble into anything magical, even interesting, and a more fiery pre-grilling would have made the eggplant tastier.

Other items pulled up short, too. From the sushi counter, mackerel, tuna and salmon nigiri ($3.25) were cut cumbersomely big and a little ragged; a rather indifferent lettuce salad with grilled tuna ($8.95), lime leaves and chili peppers that just sat there, when it could have grabbed us by the lapels; and a Tom Yum soup with shrimp ($5.95), which hit the tongue with pepper flavor and then evaporated, instantly, like a magic trick.

Meals happen fast at Fuji San, and no one seems terribly troubled by having entrees show up before their appetizers have been finished. The service is sweet, and the millennials, the young families and the academics all looked happier with their choices than we were. I think we'd have had a better time at Fuji San had we gone with the basics - pad Thai, a curry, a basil stir-fry - which might be another reason for Fuji San to stick to them.

Fuji San Where: 10015 York Road, Cockeysville

Call: 410-628-9098

Open: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday; noon-10 p.m. Saturday

Credit cards: All major

Prices: Sides $3.95-$9.95; entrees $8.95-$17.95

Food: **

Service: **

Atmosphere: **

[Outstanding: **** Good:*** Fair or uneven: ** Poor *]

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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