Restaurant Reviews

Hear the Hiss

Here's a prediction: Fuse will last as long as a lit fuse. But it won't go out with a megaton cherry-bomb pop. It will go out with a pfffft. A dud. Then someone will try to salvage it and change the name to Gasket, or some other thing that can be blown.

Of course the name "Fuse" probably doesn't refer to the fizzing cord that sets off an explosive charge or even the gadget in electrical circuits that keeps the hair dryer from turning the house into a pizza kiln (though the latter reference is possible, as Fuse is located in the renovated Dallas Power & Light building). Fuse probably refers to the verb form of possible "fuse" definitions, which is to meld, merge, combine. You can deduce this from the logo, which features an "f" drawn in an s-loop with dots in each cupped space of the letterform--very yin-yangish. And as we all know, yin-yang symbology is the Che Guevara of our tattoo and T-shirt New Enlightenment period.

The Chinese yin-yang symbol is apropos because Fuse bills itself as "A TexAsian drinking and dining experience." How's that for welding words? At the front of the restaurant is a lit display nook holding an assortment of colorful cowboy boots. Opposite the host/hostess stand is what must be several hundred pounds of caged river rocks. (There's a yin-yang metaphor buried in there somewhere. Gather up the blasting caps and let's explore.) A Buddha overlooks the landing on the staircase winding up to the bar. These days, a bar without a Buddha is like a hooded robe without a tonsured monk.

But even with all of this implicated enlightenment, Fuse will fizzle. Why? The vibe. Fuse is such an overexerted "melding" of contrived urban nightclub ain't-we-hipness that you feel compelled to marshal a chopstick to pry the tongue out of Fuse management's cheek to keep them from permanently fusing together. They can't be serious. Can they?

The setting: stained concrete floors, dark dining nooks, flickering votives, velour-ish banquettes, concrete posts done up in black structural corsets of bolted steel ribbons and suspenders and lots of gauzy sheers wavering like wispy gowns rustled by heavy breathing. Euro-throb and syntho-thump pulses through the sound system. And lots of metal: from brushed steel stair handrails with steel cable support rails to brushed metal chairs. Upstairs resides a bamboo wall and a bamboo water garden patio. Steel, bamboo, Buddha, concrete, sheers, techno-bump. Fuse is an industrial koan tease. So where's the wink? And once the thick fog of German car key trollers and poon hounds lifts (as it inevitably will), what's left?

Well, there's the food, which is mostly remarkable on account of the deft touch and clever juggling of balance and spark by chef Blaine Staniford. But it's really hard to eat it here, and there don't seem to be any take-away menus or TexAsian "to go" pails.

Take the ceviche, which is given a TexAsian slant by employing the Japanese citrus fruit yuzu. The mix is simple: shrimp and pieces of tilapia, cured in a bath of yuzu and lime, assembled on the plate with cilantro and red onion over a smear of avocado purée. The interplay--the back and forth--is arousing: sweetness winking at sour, sour brushing its lips on salt. Shrimp are split and fanned, looping into tight knots. The flesh is tender, reeking of intense citrus sweat. Yet there is a drawback here: the wedges of tilapia are so large and cumbersome that it's difficult to manipulate them without first pulverizing the fish with repeated chopstick stabs.

Chopsticks posed problems with the crab-stuffed shiitake mushrooms, as well, but this is due more to clumsy chopstick chops than faulty kitchen execution. Upended mushroom caps, filled with a blend of lump crab, panko bread crumbs and sriracha (Thai sauce made from chili paste) ring a center mound of apple fennel "kimchi" lubed with basil oil. Of course these shavings of pale green apple and fennel aren't really kimchi, because they aren't fermented and the mesh doesn't pack a pungent punch. It's more of a pale attempt to help the sriracha shoehorn the dish into the "TexAsian" tier (maybe the fennel was from Kaufman). The crab stuffing tumbles out of the shiitake caps when the chopsticks waver. But if you can steady the crab, you'll discover an interesting tweak. Deep down--at its freshest and most robust--crab shamelessly flirts with fruit. This apple "kimchi" simply taunts these flavors. Flecks of pepper add some anger to the harmony. There's one flaw here, though. The bread crumb binding is soggy, muting the potency of the interplay.

But from here the flaws (as minimal as they are) fade from view, and the food just effortlessly climbs far above the faux relevance of the restaurant's environment. Staniford's food is a marvel of simplicity. Look at the farmers market tomato salad: an array of robust tomato slices splashed in soy vinaigrette. And it has baubles. Two delicious caps of goat cheese--one crusted with blond sesame seeds, the other in black.

He does masterful things to feathers and fins, too. Muscovy duck, dry-aged, seared and flurried with salt and pepper, is thinly sliced and assembled as a segmented row stretching like a ribbon across a narrow berm of mango risotto. The meat flashes a slight blush, and it's rich with gamy tones that never snarl. Creamy mango risotto is slightly sweet and tangy, but a wash of shiitake mushroom broth steers it toward earthiness--a remarkable tease that resolves itself effortlessly.

And the fins? Scottish salmon planted on a tangle of soba noodles and cilantro aioli is stunning. The fish, with a slight sheath of crispness, flashes medium-rare pink, is moist, flakes robustly and fills the mouth with a rich but restrained flavor. Subbing lemon with Texas grapefruit--to temper the sear with a little sweetness--is simply brilliant, plus it conforms to the Fuse tagline.

Yet the Fuse ambience always threatens. The Dallas Power & Light building is essentially a beehive of trendy lofts. The elevators to the lofts above are just aft of the host/hostess stand. This set up essentially means that residents stroll through the restaurant vestibule with freshly walked pooches, sometimes to the cooing of hostesses and servers. Sometimes the owners even tote baggage. One dog owner was spied strolling through the restaurant with a leash in one hand and a plastic sack in the other filled with--we must assume--a substance that rhymes with kit. There's only one way this may not be a flagrant violation of city health codes: if these mostly tiny terriers are seeing-eye dogs. That means many of the residents of the Dallas Power & Light building are blind. This is possible. Yet the Fuse menu is not in Braille, though it is hard to see in all of the chic duskiness.

And it would probably be difficult to decipher sushi via fingertip anyway. Fuse's sushi is serviceable, especially for a place that doesn't specialize in it. The fish is cool. It glistens. It's near silken in texture and virtually void of stringy sinew. Sheets of snapper, cluttered with scallions and layered upon a large leaf of Thai basil, are smooth, and they disperse in the mouth--tender, delicate and freshly potent.

Fuse serves lunch, and the roster is provocative: cured salmon club and beef short rib hash. Dessert is startling, too: roasted Granny Smith apple split blends apple and caramel sauce punched with dried cherries and spiced with cinnamon and cardamom.

Conclusion: This pretentious atmosphere is not worthy of this honestly cultivated food. Fuse is a transient rutting den with sloppy, slow service (10 minutes for a glass of wine in a near-empty restaurant) and fashion statements that bend from exertion. This cuisine deserves an embracing bistro to cultivate a steady stream of appreciative regulars who aren't smitten by wispy sheers and techno-thumping. And while there are plenty of them around, it doesn't take a dog to sniff out this hissing dud. 1512 Commerce St., #111, 214-742-3873. Open for lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday. Open for dinner 6-10 p.m. Monday-Wednesday and 6-11 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Closed Sunday. $$-$$$

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz