A melting pot it's not

Fusion was first and formerly a chain noodle palace of the around-the–world-in-80-pastas sort. (I made up the 80 part, OK?) “It didn’t catch on,” we were told. So the next logical step, right?, was for the chef and part-owner, from Mexico City, to turn to fusion of a more straightforward sort: mahi-mahi with cilantro hollandaise, rib eye with chipotle demi-glaze — that sort of thing. Oh, and to add a kind of vestigal wine bar in one corner. Wine bars are hot now, too.

It should be said that the chef and his associates were starting with a good shell. The striking glassed-in kitchen is apparently little changed from its previous
disposition, the earth-tone colors are appealing, and there are linens on every table. In all, it’s a surprisingly handsome setting for a restaurant of fuzzy focus.

Any responsible review takes what a restaurant is attempting to do and evaluates on that basis, so let’s do just that. Seafood: don’t go on a Thursday.

At least not if you are in the mood for ceviche, crab cakes with a spicy mango relish, or anything bearing oysters. I actually began to feel sorry for our waiter who finally had to admit that the seafood delivery comes on Thursday (so don’t go on Wednesday, either), and the sous chef
hadn’t had time to prep anything. Shrimp and calamari were available, however, which tells you something, and thus we had to settle for yet another rendition of fried calamari as an appetizer.

There was nothing wrong with the squid, apart from predictability, that a little salt and pepper wouldn’t have cured. They were tender, there were actual tiny tentacles, the unseasoned flouring was light, and the citrus-accented red-bell-pepper sauce was refreshingly bright and appealing.

Our second fall-back appetizer was grilled salmon stuffed into an avocado shell with an arroz verde and chunks of avocado. Advertised peas were MIA, and the rice was a little gummy, but the salmon was fine, and baby spinach with the house’s signature mango vinaigrette provided a pretty underpinning. On the basis of this vinaigrette, vaguely fruity and sweet, we did change our order for a house salad, however, and we once again pulled out the salt shaker — something I seldom do. So far, Fusion can’t season.

When the kitchen begins to work with chipotle, however, the pace picks up appreciably. We asked for another house dressing, the chipotle ranch, to be served on the side with the Fusion house salad, a simple but refreshingly straightforward blend of torn romaine, slivered carrot, and a token tomato slice. We picked up the pieces (romaine seems to suggest that) and dipped them in the robust ranch. Good.

Good in a much more low-key way was the house onion soup spiked with shrimp. The shrimp themselves were almost superfluous, but the flavor they lent to the broth was elusive and appropriately subtle.

Now, while we’re in that welcome lull between befores and mains, would normally be a good time to talk about the wine list. But not at Fusion: the courses come much too rapidly — or did on this occasion. I’m not fond of long stretches between courses, but almost worse in my opinion is seeming rushed. The other reason for not dwelling on the wine list, however, is that it’s just not worth talking about. “Looks like it all came from World Market,” offered dining companion. And though he was dwelling a little unfairly on the presence of white zin and Yellow Tail, he had a point. We did find, by the glass, a respectable sauvignon blanc from Geyser Peak, and an unexpected vernaccia from Italy’s Pietrafitta, but stopped there. Besides, we still had white wine left when the entrées arrived …

… On good-looking serving pieces. If nothing else, Fusion does have the visual pegged. But the pasty, pan-fried snapper was either overcooked or previously frozen — or both — and its cold avocado cream sauce, which we anticipated as a silky mantle of pale pistachio color, was parsimonious and anything but lush and creamy. An unremarkable mango relish did little to relieve the plate’s problems.

So far, we have quibbles with two of Fusion’s three alleged specialties, seafood and wine. Which makes the steaks high-stakes indeed.

Any time I see “grilled to perfection” or “perfectly grilled” on a menu, it raises hackles, but I have to admit the Fusion rib-eye was cooked exactly to a medium rare. The damning by faint praise continues with mention of a decently flavored but unremarkable cut plagued by a detectable amount of gristle. More telling, however, was the absence of its advertised chipotle demi-glaze — the kitchen’s salvation. When it arrived as a side serving, it did lift the steak out of the ordinary.

A very respectable crème brûlée capped the evening (mango, the kitchen’s other favorite ingredient, appears in crepes or as a glaze for a cheese pie) but left me unsatisfied.

Fusion or folly? It was still hard to tell. A lunchtime chile relleno stuffed with sautéed tuna, onion, and tomato wasn’t really going to resolve that question, but it turned out to be my favorite dish — despite feeling somewhat taken in by the sautéed tuna. Smarter folks would have figured out that they really meant canned tuna, but hope still springs eternal despite years of disappointment. And regardless, I liked it. The chipotle sauce that accompanied it was, this time, appropriately soft-pedaled, and a side of sprightly green rice found the kitchen back in fine form. As for the fusion factor, at least they’re upfront about it.


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