Pac Rim Rumba
Fusion, whether it's in musical, culinary or thermonuclear idioms, is a tedious term. It's a sigh stimulant, a drowse inducer, a word that was forged in a quest for succinctness but instead plopped us into the middle of a muddy mealy mouth. Think of how many menus, in one way or another, stake a "fusion" claim. Better yet, ponder the paucity of those that don't. Fact is, exotic ingredients and techniques--driven into mainstream consciousness by cable TV, the Internet and Boeing jetliners--are so commonplace that it's the rare chef or menu that doesn't Cuisinart the globe and serve it in a cornhusk. Exceptions are those limelight-shy chefs who craft menus boasting authenticity and tradition, paying homage to this or that.
Hybrids also are a rarity. Khanh Dao's Steel Restaurant & Lounge boomed in part because it broke from the fusion mold, opting for a Japanese-Indo-Chinese matrimony, leaving the cuisines largely distinct but free to fraternize. Here, fusion was created by diners on the table instead of on the plate by chefs.
That "fusion" has become a cliché is confirmed with a Google. Rev the search engine with "fusion restaurant," and it sprays out some 7,000 hits, from Oktogon Fusion Restaurant in Berlin, to Kinki Asian Fusion in Ottawa, to Fusion Restaurant & Lounge in Phoenix. Dallas is more blunt, entering the fray with Fusion.
Fusion was founded by chef John Le, a native of Vietnam. With his three brothers, Le took over the former Edamame space on Lemmon Avenue with lofty ambitions. "We wanted to bring what Asian food used to be...cuisine," Le says. "Now it's just fast food...It's quickly been relegated to $6.95 meals."
Relegating ethnic cuisine to the fast-food canon, it can be argued, is a good thing. Maguro shimmering under a plastic dome and dropped into a paper bag opens the mind like no sushi temple satisfying bellies at $40 per person ever could. Would Western culture rummage in a pit of depravity if you could get seared foie gras from a takeout window? With curly fries?
Le maintains that in Dallas, diners have trouble distinguishing among Asian cuisines. What's Thai is Chinese is Japanese is Laotian. "There's not a lot of differentiation," he says. So what does he do? He blurs these gossamer boundaries--to dazzling effect.
"There are different flavors that we can marry," he says. And Asia is not the only talent pool outfitting these marriages.
Sometimes fusions are clumsy, amounting to little more than caricatures that read cleverly on paper but ravage the palate once they are lifted from the plate. Hell hath no fury like a mismatch codified in marriage. And Japanese and Mexican, or its loud uncle Tex-Mex, is like a union between Michael Moore and Phyllis Schlafly without the pre-nup. But here it is executed with such verve that there is little cause for restraining orders, though at $21, a mortgage might be in order. Fusion ceviche is like sashimi, except that it isn't. It's a tiny martini glass posing as a rag picker for a host of sushi-bar refugees: octopus, tuna, yellowtail, flounder or snapper, cut into cubes. "Once you cut to the end of a piece of fish, it gets to a certain point where you can't make it into sushi anymore," Le says. So he cuts these leftovers cleanly, mingles them with tomato, onion and cucumber sliced into negligee sheerness and soaks them in a brisk bath of Japanese lime, orange, tangerine and chardonnay hopped up with garlic and pepper. A tortilla strip is planted on top as a Tex-Mex wink. Delicious.
Yet it's no surprise this leftover composition was good. It has terrific pedigree. Sushi from the bar is delicate and cool. Though at most places the fish can be silky and delicious, it is often bedded down on afterthought rice that is stiff with brittle edges. This stuff is moist and delicate, holding together the basic billet or roll form on its way to the mouth before fragmenting soothingly once it's probed by the tip of the tongue.
Red snapper and the flounder came bare, without the typical crowns of diced pepper and tomato ringed in daikon sprouts--sort of a Japanese pico de gallo. Cool, firm and fluffy, uni is folded like a velvety leaf over the rice and is easily among the best sea urchin spawns floating in Dallas. Miso soup is rich and heavily populated with enoki mushroom shavings and scallion that accompany tofu cubes in billowing clouds of soy paste.
But as the fusion moniker should imply, this menu isn't all Japanese precision and aesthetic economy (entrées include a rosebud from shaved and pleated daikon radish). Thai sensuality bubbles up in satays: beef and shrimp. Six shrimp are impaled in trios on two wooden needles, sweating a tawny sauce that gets progressively bleaker toward the tails, which are singed to a delicate ash that flakes into a pleasing crispness on the tongue. The sauce is oyster with a little sesame oil splashed with sweet wine, a formula that punches up the savory while it fleshes out the richness. The skewers are arranged on a long, narrow rectangular plate buttoned down with a pinch of parsley and a micro-heap of shredded red onion.
Vietnamese stuff obviously must make an appearance, and it burrows into the menu with understated elegance. Vietnamese bún is a bowl of firm, separate rice noodles with bits of lettuce, cilantro and scallions strewn throughout. Though beef was ordered, chicken was delivered: tender, juicy chunks generously scattered over the surface. It must be hard to distinguish between a bird and a bovine when fusion is the doctrine.
Goi sua, a classic bit of Vietnamese nourishment, is suffused with chill. Glowing with a light peach through its milky translucence, the tender frayed strips of jellyfish crunched when chewed--like tiny chicken bone joints or tamer patches of beef gristle. Bright carrot slivers poke through the tangled pile like needles, and it's all electrified with a lime-chili dressing edged with a narrow thread of sweetness.
Asian food is hip, especially when it mingles, mangles and blends the whole Pan Asian strip. The music at Fusion thumps and weaves. The colors are warm, and the woods enveloping the banquettes are brawny in a metrosexual sort of way. The granite tabletops are well-polished. The votive candles and halogen lighting don't add one lumen or watt to menu reading ease, just as they don't at most restaurants simmering on the edge. But it is nice to look at, and it's made to order for a beautiful people swarm, though they don't seem to have discovered it yet, which means you should make haste and get to Fusion before they start clicking through in their Blahniks and Mercedes key chains.
And for them there is a beautiful, architectural dish: seafood bird's nest, an odd piece of fauna blending. A meticulous basket is woven from tarot root, which beds shrimp, calamari cones and scallops--all cleanly sweet and bathed in a mild sauce. And these flavors were set off by vegetable bitterness--cauliflower and broccoli--tempered by mushrooms.
Perhaps the most remarkably delicious specimen was kasu-marinated black cod in plum buerre blanc with spicy mango chutney and a fried Tex-Mex sushi roll of black cod, peppers and avocado. That's Japan, Texas, France, India and Mexico bundled on one long, narrow strip of a plate. That's the kind of fusion that can go thermonuclear.
4334 Lemmon Ave., 214-521-3536. Open for lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, only sushi from 2:30 p.m.-5:30 p.m. Open for dinner 5:30 p.m.-10:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5:30 p.m.-11:30 p.m. Friday & Saturday. $$$
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