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.
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).
So what if I have to swat at the boys to get my share of a charred chicken pouch appetizer? I'm not surprised, given that this platter of oversize crispy beggar's purses puts most Chinese pot stickers to shame. The crisp won ton wrappers bulge with herbed cream cheese and lounge on a puddle of intensely spicy red chile orange sauce. I barely snag a few forkfuls of stellar jumbo lump Maryland crab cakes as well, the moist plump cakes loaded with seafood and lolling on a brilliant cucumber-spiked tartar.
I've shown up for dinner about 15 minutes late, a shameful m.o. of mine. Especially unfortunate now, because here's the rule for my reviews: Whoever arrives at the restaurant first gets dibs on dishes. This means that tonight, I've got last choice, and it's painful to hear the beautiful plates being picked by my buddy and the teens. A few stolen bites of the roasted Australian lamb rack are hardly enough for me, with its clutch of chop-thick, juicy rich ribs drizzled with an elegant peppercorn demi-glace and paired with horseradish whipped potatoes, sun-dried tomatoes and artichokes. I'd happily eat all the ahi, too, deftly seared with a slick of chile and soy reduction, and nested with sticky rice and baby bok choy. And shrimp penne grabs my organic buddy's attention thanks to its fresh asparagus, and it is a pleasing dish, generous with black tiger shrimp in a light roasted garlic-Chardonnay cream. Imagine his joy when we discover certified organic wine on Fusion's lengthy, remarkably well-priced wine list. Cooper Mountain Estate's Pinot Gris 2001 (Willamette Valley, Oregon) brings crisp flavors of apple, honey and ripe melon.
Me, I think I'm settling for the salmon, but I end up thrilled. Baked to a moist, firm flesh, it's been crusted with chopped cilantro and cashews, and then partnered with soft Parmesan polenta, baby carrots and a voluptuous cream sauce spiked with ginger.
By now, our group is high on good food and giggles about the teens' most recent skateboarding injuries (what's with boys and their desire to do great personal bodily harm by engaging in lunatic tricks?). It's fitting that dessert specials this evening include even more fun: a decadent, ultra-chocolaty bread pudding and, my favorite, an old-fashioned ice cream float made with Sioux City sarsaparilla (Jennifer proudly shows us the bottle as she also presents four straws for sharing). An enormous homemade peanut butter cookie comes alongside the fountain glass, crispy-edged and gooey soft in the middle. The grown-ups are glowing; the boys are in full primal glee.
Later visits find me sharing not a bit (I go by myself, to be safe). Fusion also serves lunch, and it's on a par with the excitement of dinner for unheard-of bargains ranging from $5.95 to $11.95. Black sesame crusted ahi brings slabs of expertly seared fish presented over julienne crunchy jicama and sweet mango. Chop salad is both gourmet and gentle, blending romaine, char-grilled chicken, peppered bacon, tomato, thin-sliced asparagus, diced provolone and peppery ranch dressing. I get two meals out of the raspberry turkey sandwich, fashioned from real roasted breast, romaine, deli Swiss and a slick of sweet fruit sauce on a fat round ciabatta. There's macaroni and cheese, too, and it's outstanding, with thick, ribbed pasta and slivers of turkey breast in an old-fashioned creamy-soupy sauce. And who can find such a beautiful BLT with peppered bacon on toasted sourdough, or gorgeous grilled cheese with sliced tomato -- in Scottsdale, and for just $5.95, including crisp French fries, terrific skin-on bacon-specked potato salad or fresh fruit? For higher-end appetites, there's success in crab cake salad with spinach, jicama, avocado, cucumber and peanut dressing; or the seared ahi salad with goat cheese, fruit and mint-lime vinaigrette.
Fusion fits all my moods. It reminds me why it can be such a joy to eat out.
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