Fusion fireworks

Anzu proves anew that whatever works, works

The American Institute of Wine and Food, which loves to dine and dither about such things, focused on fusion food at its big deal Conference on Gastronomy last October in Seattle. Teapot tempests are nothing new to foodies, who characteristically delight in discussing the merits and demerits of what they're eating ad nauseam. But, now that the whole globe is a melting pot, when Italy is growing kiwis and Venezuela ships Thai herbs to New York, the Japanese line up for latte grande, and Tex-Mex takes over Paris, why in the world is cross-cultural cooking an issue? And when you remember that Italian food as we know it didn't evolve until Columbus found the Americas and the tomato, that there couldn't have been an Irish potato famine until the South American potato had been introduced to Ireland, and that many of France's vinifera vines are grafted onto rootstock developed in Denison, Texas, you have to wonder what all the fuss is about. It seems to me it's really about food as culture, like Ebonics is about language as culture, only the philosophy that opposes culinary cross-pollinating is the same one that supports Ebonics. The questionable argument is for the purity of a cultural heritage that isn't pure anyway.

There's certainly no such thing as a pure culinary heritage, but this conference and its rehash in the Institute's newsletter addressed some Big Questions like "Can America incorporate Asian cultures and food traditions without obliterating them?" "Can we find a balance between moving forward and preserving our past?" And, more to the point, "when chefs get to wasabi chocolate ice cream, have they gone too far?!" (The italics and extra punctuation marks are all mine.) All kinds of experts have debated these weighty issues, but there's only one way to know if culinary cultural blending is a good idea: shut up, eat what's on your plate, and see if it tastes good.

In all this fusion confusion, Dallas' original global showcase restaurant, Anzu, is local proof that whatever works, works. Not everything on the menu is always wonderful, but when the fusion is cookin', the result is fireworks.

Anzu is a brilliant, designed-by-Draper restaurant, successfully translating the East-West menu union into visuals by combining substance and subtlety, motion and tranquillity, concrete and paper. A giant gold leaf checkerboard papers the rear wall, plate glass windows form another. A whimsical flock of origami hangs from the ceiling, fluttering with the motion of every person who walks beneath, its delicate quiver offsetting the gravity of the industrially chic cement-topped tables and bare floors.

Anzu is under the same ownership as Nakamoto, one of the most highly regarded Japanese restaurants in Dallas, but although there is a whole list of sushi, sashimi, and rolls on Anzu's menu, the list of appetizers and entrees mixes not just Japanese flavors, but Thai influences with European and American flavors. Sometimes, to be honest, it seems they are mixing vocabulary more than ingredients. "Giant pot stickers filled with spinach and ricotta cheese in a plum tomato sauce"--isn't this actually a roundabout way of describing giant ravioli in marinara? At lunch, "pasta with fresh plum tomato sauce and stir fried vegetables could just mean "pasta primavera" in language more circumstantially correct--more gastronomically p.c. The famous chocolate mousse is served in a "giant fortune cookie" that owes its inception as much to a French tuile cookie.

Other dishes bear breathlessly long titles that challenge the diner to compose the dinner in his mouth before he even orders: Imagine steak, now imagine steak with caramelized onions, now add shiitake mushrooms to your imagined mouthful, made into a relish with the onions, and served with au gratin potatoes and tempura portobello mushrooms, cut into strips. What is it we were supposed to be eating? Oh yes, I do taste beef.

Well, ingredient-stacking is nothing new in this type of cooking--we're all used to essay-length descriptions of dishes that used to have romantic, uninformative names like "steak Diane." Anzu's food is less baroque than what's served at many restaurants, and the titles of some dishes are disarmingly straightforward. "Red curry chicken stew" is exactly that, and if you were eating with your eyes closed, you'd think you were eating Thai red curry chicken. Which you are. Only the greater richness, the pretty presentation, and the absence of sticky rice indicates that the hand of a New American chef has concocted the obliquely piquant chicken and vegetable mix.

The cod, our waiter assured us, was the star of the menu, so we made a few cracks about Mrs. Paul's fishsticks and ordered it doubtfully. It had, according to the menu, been marinated in sake, and it was served on field greens with grapefruit (a very New World touch) and Chinese black vinegar (reminiscent of Italian balsamic). Nevertheless, it unfortunately remained much like cod--coarse, slick, and in need of some other flavor, like, oh, ketchup. Thai-grilled lamb chops were wonderful, though, a glistening cluster of single, bone-scraped chops, the musky fat taste of the lamb mingling with the massage of seasoning usually given Siamese satay, and complementing the eggplant caponata that accompanied it. This is when fusion works, when one ingredient bridges naturally into another cuisine, so there's a subtle, kaleidoscopic shift in the palate's expectations, and the distinctive flavor of one region of the world segues into another via a common spice.

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