Love at First Bite

At Fuse, chef Blaine Staniford introduces Asian ingredients  to Texana, resulting in a good marriage.

 

We’ve all gotten a bit silly over downtown Dallas, like a marriage-obsessed single who scrutinizes every prospect with anxious eyes: is this the one?

We had a long affair with Jeroboam, which did, for a spell, transform us into the cosmopolites we longed to be. But then we plunged into a cheap fling with Iron Cactus (and don’t we feel foolish now). We spent a couple of one-nighters with Blue, and Pandora, well, we’ve always been just friends.

But here comes Fuse, with all the right assets: it’s young, hip (for God’s sake, it lives in a loft), and a great dresser (mint Ultrasuede booths!). It has “brains,” i.e., an au courant menu with a distinctive, trendy Tex-Asian theme. You want to talk about great personality? The staff bends over backward to be friendly and attentive. Oh, and it also has a pool.
I do!

That’s right. Fuse’s lair includes an outdoor pool, just like Sky Bar at the Mondrian Hotel in Los Angeles and Dragonfly at Hotel ZaZa here in Dallas. Are pools now standard equipment for restaurants? Said pool, plus hot tub, form the centerpiece of a sprawling lounge where you can gaze up at a ring of high-rise buildings and, beyond them, the big sky. It’s the ultimate urban experience and breathtaking at night.

But the entire Fuse complex intrigues. Poured cement floors and exposed beams remind you that you’re in a refurbished old building. The restaurant itself slinks across the lobby of the Dallas Power & Light complex, one of downtown’s most attractive redos, with two art deco-ish office buildings converted into apartments. Fuse sits across from the residential elevators, and there’s always someone to watch, from the couple hauling groceries to the woman walking her Dalmatian.

When atmosphere is this much of a talker, it’s almost a given: don’t expect much from the food. But Fuse has Blaine Staniford, an alumnus of the famed Culinary Institute of America in New York, where he graduated at 19. Prior to Fuse, he was sous chef at Lola. Before that, he worked for Consilient, the restaurant group that owns Cuba Libre, Hibiscus, and Sense.

 

His menu takes the Asian fusion trend that nearly everyone is doing to a higher plane by merging Asian ingredients with Texan. The standard-bearer: the unforgettable brisket pot-stickers, five won-ton packets stuffed with brisket and sautéed on their sides until crisp. Delectable alone, they brightened after a splash of dipping sauce with mouth-puckering notes of citrus and soy.

The other rave-up dish was the snapper entrée, with jasmine rice and baby bok choy. Fine accompaniments, good fish, but smart cooking put the snap in that snapper. The fillet got pan-seared on top and bottom, mercilessly, until it had acquired a crunchy brown crust worthy of your best artisan bread. Here’s a good sign: one night the snapper came off the menu because Staniford didn’t like what he saw from the supplier.

In a place offering sliced duck breast with mango risotto and big-eye tuna with charred corn relish, it feels odd to tout chicken, even one lovingly roasted and served with fingerling potatoes, soybeans, and cashews. But a double breast this tender and juicy demands props. That said, why slice those fingerling potatoes, instead of keeping them whole to spotlight their unique, petite shape?
Being at least partly Asian, Fuse has sushi—rolls mostly, but capably made and accessible to everyone. Spicy tuna roll wasn’t too spicy, and the eponymous Fuse roll skipped the raw trip with crab, salmon, asparagus, smelt egg, and carrot.

All this and low prices, too, with most entrées under $20. Is Fuse perfect? Nobody is, especially this young. Salads such as the tomato with sesame-crusted goat cheese didn’t make a big impression. A piece of stale bread here, a mixed-up order there—details didn’t always get their due. And among the desserts, only the warm chocolate cake cloaked in glossy ganache truly charmed. But the cocktail list overflows with pomegranate this and infusion that, as might be expected from an eligible number such as this. So, we ask coyly: where’s the ring?  1512 Commerce St. 214-742-3873. $$-$$$.

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