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.
Lunch at Anzu remains one of the city's secret deals, at least if the crowd on the day I ate there was typical--only two other tables were taken. Yet, you can't beat Anzu for style and ambience, even in the harsh middle of the day, and, more remarkably, you can't beat it for price. Several meals are served on a compartmentalized, lacquered tray, bento-style, an exotic echo and wryly funny reminder of the tray cuisine that until recently defined southern-style eating at Highland Park Cafeteria just a few doors down the street. There's a selection of appetizers to be had, and the Japanese collection of sushi, etc. is also available at lunch, but the smart buys are the bentos, Anzu's equivalent of the Mexican lunch combination plate or the Indian buffet. The Anzu bento, for instance, holds a cup of miso soup, the chicken soup of Japan, a concentrated broth clouded with the sustaining soy paste, a California roll (talk about a hybrid) centered with creamy avocado, a dry, sliced breast of sticky-glazed teriyaki chicken, and a remarkably good spring roll--all for the remarkably low price of six bucks. At this price, you can afford to look magnanimous and treat a friend or you can save it for yourself and splurge (at twice the price) on a more luxurious bento--shrimp and tuna sushi, beef satay, shrimp (a shrimp) and vegetable tempura (eat this first, it gets soggy fast), and teriyaki salmon, instead of chicken. But you can also feel global and eat local by ordering the above-mentioned pasta with tomato sauce and stir-fried vegetables, for an astonishingly inexpensive $5.00. If you order tea, you will receive your own steaming and charming ceramic pot full of an aromatic apricot blend. But Anzu is also well known for its generously sized and excellent martini, if that's your culture's conception of lunch.
Several years ago, there was a high-concept art magazine that advertised itself as being "truly global," because it was completely unintelligible in every country. That's perfect fusion for you. So remember, if you can't tell by tasting that wasabi chocolate ice cream is not a good idea, you deserve every scoop you're served.
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Anzu, 4620 McKinney Ave., (214) 526-7398. Open for lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. For dinner Sunday-Thursday 6 p.m.-11:30 p.m.
Red Curry Chicken Stew $16.95
Strip Steak with Caramelized Onion/Shiitake Mushroom Relish, au Gratin Potato and Tempura Portobello Strips $21.95
Chinese Five Spice Roasted Pork Tenderloin with a Dried Apricot and Roasted Onion Relish $17.95
Anzu Bento $6.00
Pasta with Fresh Plum Tomato Sauce and Stir Fried Vegetables $5.00