Reports on the Death of Fusion Are Greatly Exaggerated: A Response to Michael Bauer
|Namu's gamja fries: Fusion, dude. Pure fusion.|
My first response on reading Michael Bauer's post today, "What happened to fusion cuisine?" was a pleasant, if slightly embarrassed, sigh of nostalgia, the kind that escapes when you're rustling through a drawer and come across an old prom photo you forgot to burn. Oritalia! Cafe Kati! The House! I was so obsessed with them all in the 1990s. (What's the culinary equivalent of a bromance? Because in my early 20s I had quite the cook's crush on Oritalia's Bruce Hill and Eos's founder, Arnold Wong.)
It's true that Asian fusion in that form has all but disappeared, and in foodista circles the word "fusion" is tinged with as much scorn as "startender." But unlike Bauer, I think that the Bay Area is seeing a new, and glorious, wave of fusion cuisine. We're just not calling it "fusion" because most of the chefs who cook it aren't white.
Isn't Hiro Sone, Lissa Doumani, and Orlando Pagan's erudite Japanese-inflected food at Ame fusion? What about Dennis Lee's fearless, experimental Korean-Californian cooking at Namu? In the street-food scene ― think of Kung Fu Tacos, Hapa SF, and Soul Cocina ― the cuisine-swapping is positively salacious.
Plus, there are more restaurants than I can count ― Slanted Door/Out the Door, Dosa, Yank Sing, Sebo, Nombe, Betelnut, and Ana Mandara, to name just a few ― that only look to outsiders as if they're serving traditional Asian cuisines. The sensibilities of these chefs, and the ingredients they showcase, are pure Californian. And that's no slam.
I concur with Bauer when he writes, "Chefs have become more comfortable using Asian ingredients and have incorporated them into their food without much fanfare." Diners don't think twice about all the culinary mashups undergirding the food at great restaurants like Baker & Banker, for instance.
To me, these New Fusion restaurants (as well as the Cal-Mex Nopalito, the Caribbean-Californian Hibiscus, the Moroccan-Californian Aziza) represent some of the most vital cooking happening in San Francisco. It's food like this that might finally bust through the French-Italian blockade that stalls creativity at too many traditional California cuisine restaurants. Those ginger Caesar salads and plum-sauce-basted salmon filets (RIP, and thank the heavens) have been surpassed by more organic, more creative, more personal, more skillful cooking.