Sunday, March 04, 2007

A Refreshing Understatement: A Review of Fusion

It’s like a really big box. A grey steel box. The décor is sparse, modern, or almost non-existent - I can’t really tell. The only light that glows in the room is the one coming from the kitchen. Against the darkness of the dining room, it is like the ethereal light of 10,000 blinding fluorescent bulbs. But in grander terms, it is the light of inspiration – the focal point of the restaurant. For decades, restaurant kitchens have remained tucked away, making food preparation like a magical illusion. At Fusion, in Tallahassee, the kitchen is on display. A testament to the restaurant’s main point – the food IS the magic.

The nouveau cuisine restaurant on the corner of Monroe and Sixth Avenue concentrates inspiration. The star is the food. It is not hidden or disguised. There are no flashy furnishings or fanfare to be distracted by. Fusions message is simple: Focus on our food. That’s what we care about here.

At lunch, the only glow comes through the two front glass doors. The long, ashen corridor leads to the large grey room – the dining room. The tables are casually set. The menu is full of attention grabbing descriptions of vegetable filled tortillas and half-pound roast beef-and-swiss sandwiches. For the most part, the lunch menu isn’t ostentatious. Sandwiches, wraps, salads, and an incredible smoked-tomato-and-vanilla soup (that I now occasionally dream about) dominate the list of lunchtime comestibles. Fairly straightforward, but expertly executed.

Lunch began with the aforementioned impeccable smoked-tomato-and-vanilla bisque. The rich red flavor of the tomato hits the palate immediately. After the swallow, the smoky essence and creamy vanilla floats upward, into your nostrils backwards – like the long finish of a good wine. It is, quite literally, bewitching. The turkey sandwich is fantastic and comes with tomatoes that have been macerated in citrus, leaving you with a splash of pungency that only the squeeze of a juicy lime, and no ordinary turkey sandwich, can deliver. The veggie tortilla sandwich is an explosion. Fried marinated artichoke hearts and other veggies are bound by a thin slice of melted provolone for a refreshingly cheesy package. Lunch at Fusion fulfills the Refreshing Lunch requirement to the letter.

Order a cocktail if you come for dinner. Fusion hosts a hip bar (open from 6pm-2am) with equally hip, young barstaff, willing to please the ultimate cocktail junkie’s palate. The same rule applies to beverage as well as the food – pungent and minimalist. The martini menu is extensive, boasting concoctions like the Bluetini (blueberry vodka, blueberry juice, and skewered blueberries) to the Mangotini. The cocktail list will have you salivating long before appetizers are a glimmer in your eye.

When food starts to arrive, the minimalist style is showcased. It’s like a reverse fanfare. There is so little showiness to the food that it contains its own flourish, no sassy plating required. The butternut squash dumplings are a burst of autumn in each bite. The creamy squash is pureed and mixed with a hint of curry – an aroma that slips into your mouth through the backdoor. The dumplings are both flavorful and mellow, even if they are a bit greasy for my tastes. The cumin sauce drizzled around the dumplings gives a nice round feeling of September to the dish. Fusion also puts an innovative twist on classic bruschetta pomodoro. The crostini at Fusion are topped with broiled, smoked Gouda (an often overlooked Danish cheese that releases an understated smoky flavor when heated) and citrus marinated tomatoes with a hint of mint.

Inconspicuous is a good word to describe Fusion’s entrees. My dining partner ordered a gorgeous medium-rare New York Strip, flavorful and well-prepared. My choice was a crab-and-corn-stuffed snapper with drawn butter. The fish was flaky and the skin was kept on the meat, allowing for the juices to gather between the meat and the skin, making it extra moist. The stuffing, however, was forgettable.

The only problems with the entrees at Fusion are the accoutrements (what comes with the dish). Or lack of. My snapper was served with two halves of a fried green tomato – a Tallahassee staple. The steak came with five (5) battered onion rings. Where was the roughage? The lack of greenery and the prominence of fried things was disturbing, and rather upsetting after such a great start. However, it is almost (stress on the almost) remedied by the complimentary salad that precedes the entrée – choice of three, all delicious.

Desserts aren’t made in-house, and thus aren’t worth a mention – or an order. Go to Bruster’s Ice Cream on Tharpe Street for dessert.

The wine list is beautiful, infusing classic flavors with New World styles. Wines are mostly American in selection with some funky Argentinian, Australian, and Chilean choices. For the most part, the staff is untrained on wines, so knowing what you like ahead of time will save some ungainly fumbling. However, if your order includes a heavy fish dish, like my crab-stuffed snapper, order the last Chardonnay on the list, it is a full-bodied, smooth white wine that holds up to the serious flavors of the snapper and corn-crab stuffing.

Service at Fusion is very hands-off, even when a little help is requested. Your server is virtually invisible, replacing silverware, dropping off cocktails, and clearing plates without a word. The college-age staff is a sophisticated and unpretentious group, carrying on the theme of the restaurant.

The experience at Fusion illustrates a point that has gone well unheralded in the restaurant world. Minimalist doesn’t have to mean boring. Flavor is the main attraction at Fusion, and it is clear that the restaurant demonstrates strict observance of that rule. In a restaurant where garnish is almost non-existent, the actual eating must carry a tremendous weight – and it does.

Fusion is open Monday-Saturday for a delectably exciting lunch, and Tuesday-Saturday for dinner. Average dinner check with appetizer, entrée, dessert, and tip will be approximately $35-$45. Make reservations on Fridays and Saturdays. Prepare to be impressed by a grey box.

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