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Fusion co-owner Jennifer Long is apologizing that the restaurant has run out of field greens. Would romaine be okay in my melon salad, she wonders? Absolutely, I assure her. By the way, she adds, the menu description of "melon" salad is kind of misleading, too, seeing as there's no melon in the kitchen tonight. She hopes I'm all right with a substitution of strawberries. And I absolutely am. Is this bothersome, she worries? Hardly, I tell her. I think it's all kind of cute.
Because what's not to love about fantastic, funky Fusion, an embraceable little bistro that's sprung up along the edge of nightclub row in the north shadow of the Galleria? Sure, we're deep in the heart of hip Scottsdale, and the place looks high style, all soft grays with flowing drapes and an intimate bar. But I tossed out any "stuck up" stereotypes as soon as I sat down. This is a cafe that has everything I crave: excellent cooking, a creative but not crazy menu, entirely reasonable pricing, and delightfully charming personal service. Melon, strawberries, whatever -- the chef could put a boot on my plate and with his skills, I bet it'd be delicious.
I admit that when I first checked out the place's menu, I wasn't blown away. It seemed pretty straightforward for such an ambitious name as "Fusion." An appetizer of bluepoint oysters with champagne sorbet sounded fun, but there was little global drama in other starters that included crab cakes, seared ahi, tempura bell peppers, chicken pot stickers, spinach salad or that un-melon melon salad. It's hard to get too worked up over largely traditional entrees, either, such as spice-rubbed chicken breast, pork chop, lamb rack, steak, lobster tail, typical seafood or pasta.
480-423-9043. Hours: Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 4 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 4 to 11 p.m.
Yet it only takes one visit for me to realize what this "fusion" refers to. Fusion is the creation of Jennifer and her husband Matthew, former chef at Steamers Genuine Seafood in Biltmore Fashion Park. He's cut his teeth on culture-crossing plates like seared halibut with pineapple risotto, French green beans and a sesame orange butter sauce. Here, though, his "fusion" focuses on the cafe's appeal to diners from all walks of life. This restaurant has something to make everyone happy -- the trendy, the timid, the fashionable, the families. A few ingredients are adventurous, such as the wild mushroom risotto and crispy yucca root served alongside chicken, or the sweet potato purée and leek with Fuji apple caramel sauce partnering the pork chops. But mostly, it's just neighborhood-friendly fare that's worth driving from any other neighborhood to get.
The Longs have their work cut out for them tonight. I've come with a group that'll test this "everyman" concept to its limit. I'm seeking that almost impossible edge of drama and restraint in food (knock me out, but don't hurt me). My buddy likes to focus on organics, health foods and lighter dining. And we have in tow the true acid test: two teenage boys, strapping fellows with raging appetites, an appreciation of straightforward cuisine, and the desire for lots of it. The uniting factor: My group not only knows good food, but also isn't shy about stating their opinions with whatever bluntness it takes.
On all counts, Fusion hits its mark. The only remotely negative aspect of our long, sumptuous dinner, in fact, comes with the boys' first opinion of black sesame crusted goat cheese (they've never had goat cheese before, no less rolled in the toasted, earthy seed). "Mud," exclaims Teenager One, wrinkling his nose after a first bite. Teen Two agrees, flicking his tongue against his teeth with distrust. But then they savor. They take second bites. "Good mud," says one. The other agrees, and suddenly, all that mud has disappeared down their gullets.
Great mud, indeed. The thick creamy rounds of primo cheese appear in the "melon" salad, tossed with sunflower seeds, toasted almonds and strawberries in a bright mint-lime vinaigrette. When Jennifer clears the plate, there's a lone strawberry slice remaining (we've been oddly polite, I guess, not wanting to hog the last bite). She wants to know who's going to take it, though, pointing out that it is a perfect piece of fruit, hand-selected by her husband for its ruby red tone and firm sweet flesh. She's right; Teen One and I pounce with our forks, ultimately agreeing to a split.
Sharing is a good thing; as Jennifer comments, she always recommends that a table not order any duplicate dishes. This way, diners can sample each other's plates and enjoy a wide spectrum of flavors. Excellent theory -- this is how I live my life; sneaking piggish mouthfuls of my companions' food whether they want me to or not. Except that at Fusion, there's barely a single dish that I don't wish I had all to myself.
I don't want to give up a bit of a daily special of artichoke Cheddar soup that has a lot more going on than simple yellow cheese and vegetable. It's a blend of mellow and tangy dairy, pale cream-colored stock and nicely bitterish fresh thistle hearts. Are teens supposed to like such stuff? These two do. The grown-ups (as much as I hate that word) at the table adore it. We sop it up with pillowy hot focaccia that Jennifer's plucked "fresh from the oven" (Fusion gets its bread from Capistrano's Bakery in Tempe, but it's baked fresh daily).