Cold fusion

Liberty's Asian fusion concept slips on a noodle

I'm wondering how much more mileage will be drawn from the culinary fusion trends that have swept through the restaurant industry like Macarena-twitching through a political convention. Everywhere you look, someone is trying to fuse Asian ingredients with, say, the line of fine foods from Hormel, or fried bananas marinated in chipotle sauce with Chicago hot-dog toppings. All this rampant crisscrossing seems to ignore a simple caveat: Attempts at fusion should be handled with care.

"The act or procedure of liquefying or melting together by heat" is how the American Heritage Dictionary defines fusion. Right there you have the potential for the sublime, the insipid, or the pornographic.

You don't have to go far to come across an example of this process run amok. Look what happened to fusion when it was applied to music. Groundbreaking brilliance was the result when Miles Davis fused acidic Hendrix-like riffs and textures with free-form jazz. But as these seamless musical copulations evolved, the "fusion" process spit up "jazz" groups such as the smarmy Spyro Gyra. More recently, it spawned saxophonist Kenny G., a long-haired, reed-slobbering sap who refuses to use his last name because he knows that if he did, we'd track him down and fuse his lips to a truck tailpipe.

The trick to a successful fusion is not to be overly concerned with the hipness in melding disparate elements, but instead to orchestrate logically and let the finished product speak for itself. Which is what Liberty, a new "Asian fusion noodle house" on lower Greenville Avenue boasting Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Malaysian, and Indian influences, seems to forget a little too often. It's billed as the first Dallas restaurant following a fusion trend set in London, New York, Chicago, and Seattle. But I don't know. Dittoing trends that already have swamped other cities doesn't seem much to brag about. The only fame to claim when following a trend is when a distinctive, provocative twist is taken on what would otherwise be a robotic bit of duplication.

Yet despite harnessing the talents of Annie Wong, nationally renowned chef from Krisda's--now Thai Taste--which set out to meld Southwestern influences with Thai cuisine, Liberty doesn't make a serious attempt at carving new ground. It's a disappointment precisely because its fusion attempts seem forced and dictated by trend lines.

The Laotian green papaya salad, which according to Wong is a traditional staple in Laos that is eaten with virtually every meal, is perhaps the most successful item offered, despite its fusionless construction. And I say this with enthusiasm, not to offer up some sort of dining consolation. Settled in a purple flowering banana leaf, the mix of shredded carrot, white cabbage, tomato, and a sprinkling of peanuts comes alive when sauced with a dressing composed of lime juice, fish sauce, garlic, pepper, peanut, and a little sugar. The whole effect is unusually compelling, with a fresh, hearty crunch dazzled in a tart spiciness that hints at the deep fermented flavors inherent in kimchi, the Korean pickled vegetables.

But a brazen attempt at fusion stumbles badly. Owner Jeffrey Yarbrough, who also owns Club Clearview, Blind Lemon Bistro, Art Bar, and Red in Deep Ellum, says spicy tomato linguine was created for that person in a dining group not enthusiastic about Asian cuisine. "You know when you go out to lunch sometimes with a group of people, and someone says, 'Let's go eat Thai food,' or 'Let's go eat Chinese food,' and there's this one guy who says 'You know, I want a chicken fried steak,' or 'I want a cheeseburger?' That spicy tomato linguine is my dish for that guy."

I can't picture that chicken fried steak guy getting his arms around this dish with any gusto. Served in a big bowl, this fusion foray is a chaotic melding of mussels, shrimp, scallops, fresh fish, crab claws, calamari, and linguine in a tomato sauce mercilessly plopped on a bed of Asian basil. The individual bits of sea flesh were fairly good save the mussels, which were tough, rubbery, and a bit silty without even a hint of sweet delicacy. But the sauce is a pointless treatment. Heavily viscous, sweet, and peppery without a clean, distinctive spiciness, this brownish-red ooze is reminiscent of the stuff that's slathered on Spaghetti-Os. Maybe this is the cheeseburger-guy hook. And then to obliterate Asian basil, which is not as intensely pungent as sweet basil, under the weight of this assembly seems little more than self-conscious fusion play.

It's interesting that Yarbrough claims his goal is to do exactly the opposite of what this dish does. "I'm trying to fuse Asian noodles. My goal is not to fuse Thai and Italian," he stresses. And in reality, Liberty isn't so much a collection of fused dishes as it is a fused menu with offerings from a variety of places. It has such things as Vietnamese fresh spring rolls, served with a lively plum-peanut sauce, that contain cucumber, lettuce, bean sprouts, mint, and cilantro, all bound in an indelicate rice-paper wrap. Though fresh, the ingredients failed to harmonize in an engaging way and seemed more like a generic dinner salad than a savory appetizer.

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