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.
The soups, served in huge bowls, continued with this level of adequacy void of the remarkable. Our wok-seared beef soup--featuring, oddly, wok-boiled beef that was leathery and pale, as though it had been bleached--was served almost chilled. The broth is seasoned with a pinch of cinnamon and a little garlic and holds egg noodles, bok choy, scallions, cilantro, and large fried wonton that quickly became a soggy soup blanket. Vietnamese rice noodle soup--rice noodles and chicken (or beef) in a simple chicken stock--was riddled with dry meat and a broth that didn't get interesting until the bottom of the bowl was struck, where seemingly all of the seasonings had silted.
Other items were more uplifting. Korean beef noodles, juicy slices of grilled beef with egg noodles, bok choy, spinach, bean sprouts, carrots, cilantro, onion, and garlic oil, were rich and tasty in a savory brown sauce laced with smokiness. The spicy grilled pork, the best entree sampled, was loaded with slices of succulent, rich, marinated pork coated with sesame seeds. The meat was settled, along with cucumber and carrot, on a bed of perfectly cooked rice. The only drawback was the barely perceptible spiciness--despite the name.
Things quickly slipped back into the ho-hum, however. The pad Thai--rice noodles, shrimp, calamari, egg strips, bean sprouts, garlic, peanuts, and tender sweet shrimp in a dead peanut sauce--offered no assertive flavors, pretty unusual for a dish whose basic ingredients include chile and garlic. The tempura shrimp further developed what seems to be an unintended twist in the Liberty concept: a squandering of fresh ingredients in either inadequate or overbearing preparations. Snowpeas, broccoli, carrots, baby corn, mushrooms, green bell pepper, yellow squash, zucchini, and sweet pieces of shrimp were thwarted in a thick, orange tempura that was soggy and gummy.
But perhaps the most perplexing Liberty offering is on the short list of desserts: Annie's super sticky-rice platter with Asian custard. A mound each of purple and yellow Thai rice sweetened with coconut milk and topped with custard, this dish was so gummed, dry, and hard, it was virtually inedible.
Though the wine list is a noble effort considering the peskiness of pairing wine with Asian cuisine, it also is a little out of whack. Asian cuisines obliterate virtually every red wine you can think of, save an occasional Beaujolais or an Alsatian Pinot Noir. And the reds that aren't flattened by Asian flavor extremes become mere bystanders in the meal. Yet this list is roughly 40 percent red, while the menu cries out for a broad collection of Rieslings and GewYrztraminers (of which there are only three), especially from Alsace. In addition, a few affordable (current offerings range from $30-$55) California Chardonnays with simple varietal clarity would go a long way here.
Liberty's decor, settled in a space that was L'Ancestral years ago before it was a beer bar, is also a fusion: a merging of industrial and natural elements. Parts of it work extremely well, especially on the patio. An aluminum washtub koi pond is the focal point for this open area speckled with metal tables and chairs and greenery consisting of Japanese bamboo and herbs. It's sure to draw crowds as the weather warms.
Move just through the entrance, and you face a tall bookcase containing a selection of Asian juices, hot sauces, cookies, candy, tea, and gum, along with Liberty-monikered T-shirts and caps. The actual dining space has concrete floors and a high ceiling striped with steel beams from which horizontally positioned parasols dangle. Also dangling are gold-plated bird cages imprisoning amber Christmas lights: an odd chandelier concept for a place called Liberty.
Facing the open kitchen is a counter with a base veneered in corrugated steel and a surface of slate tiles. A handsome wood magazine rack with all sorts of hip, eclectic publications faces the six or so seats lit from above by upside-down wok chandeliers. Pseudo-shoji screens hanging from the ceiling divide some of the seating areas, and a fountain of river stone and slate, inoperable on our visits because of leaks, faces into the main dining area. It's all rather striking in its peculiar simplicity.
And the service picks up on this atmospheric tone. Though congenial, it was characterized by long waits and odd pacing. One glass of water was delivered to our table when our server first paid us a visit, while the remaining glasses were delivered with the check. Also odd: Liberty's jasmine tea is served in a tea bag slipped onto a saucer holding a cup of hot water--something you would almost never see in a strictly ethnic Asian restaurant--instead of fresh-brewed in a pot.
But this perhaps is a metaphor for the creaky execution here. While the noodle-house concept embraced by Liberty is ripe with potential, this version seemingly has its eye a bit too much on the concept instead of on the food. It exhibits little of the sophisticated agility Asian cuisines showcase through the successful orchestration of sharply drawn flavors and textures. The fusion is, quite simply, cold.
Liberty, 5631 Alta off Lowest Greenville Ave., (214) 887-8795. Open for lunch Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner Sunday and Tuesday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-10 p.m.; and until midnight Friday and Saturday. Closed Monday.
Laotian green papaya salad $6.95
Vietnamese fresh spring rolls $5.75
Wok-seared beef soup $9.95
Vietnamese rice noodle soup $5.95
Spicy tomato linguine $8.95
Pad Thai $10.95
Korean beef noodles $11.95
Spicy grilled pork $9.95
Annie's super sticky rice platter $5.95
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