I've been thinking a lot about "fusion" lately, and, in this age of simplicity, it's becoming more and more of a dirty word. I'm talking culinary fusion: the blending of cuisines from multiple cultures, the beguiling promise of creative flavors and novel combinations.
The fusion impulse usually means moving from near to far. Chefs start with familiar fare and add exotic touches to it: "American bistro cuisine with a Caribbean twist" or "Mediterranean-inspired contemporary cooking."
Recently, it seems, the inexorable lure of fusion is starting to work in the opposite direction, inspiring restaurants that practice one well-defined genre to begin fusing it up to bring it back closer to home.
Quyen Bistro, an Asian restaurant on James Island, is a good example.
Quyen has long occupied a warm spot in my heart because it is such an eccentric mishmash. It started out as Party Kingdom, a fluorescent-lit, neon-colored indoor kids playground that just happened to serve really bang-up bowls of pho. Then they upgraded the front of the house to have a nicer sit-down "Asian bistro" decor and added an all-you-can-eat buffet with tray after tray of fresh sushi.
The result is a restaurant with literally two different menus, one a combo Vietnamese-Chinese-Thai and the other a sushi bar. The neon-lit playground is still in back, discretely isolated down a long hall.
A recent menu overhaul trimmed back the number of dishes by at least half, and a revamped "Specialties" section shows the heavy hand of the gourmet fusionist at work. There's now a tamarind pork chop ($16) with grilled peaches and goat cheese, a Korean barbecue sauce-glazed steak ($20) with potato turnip purée and garlic broccolini, and chili-seared salmon with goat-cheese smashed potatoes, green papaya, and hearts of palm ($20).
The description of the duck ($18) promised a hoisin-honey glazed breast layered over truffled creamed corn with pickled huckleberries and snow peas, an item fully worthy of a modern fusion bistro. But the execution is a flop — the creamed corn sickly sweet, the slices of duck breast too thick, too done, and a little too gamey. The pickled huckleberries in a tasty red reduction are a delicious touch, but they fade to insignificance against the overwhelming sweetness of that truffled corn.
Such fusion specialties clash violently against the rest of the menu for one simple reason: Everything else is so darned good. The Vietnamese stir-fry ($12), for example, delivers flat, tender noodles tossed with vegetables and bits of grilled pork that infuse the whole with a wonderfully rich, charred flavor, and it's big enough for three meals.
Above all, the cooks at Quyen are masters of soup, slow simmering bones, vegetables, and herbs to create remarkable bowls bursting with flavor. Quyen's pho ($9) — with thinly sliced steak and savory meatballs mingled with tender noodles in a sparkling bright and intense beef broth — is still my pick for the best in Charleston.
Even the wonton soup ($4.50), that workhouse of the Chinese-American restaurant, is a delightful surprise. Its chicken broth is darkly complex, with bits of vegetables and herbs that demand closer inspection. Are those little slices of scallions and lemongrass floating on top? Are those shards of garlic with a toasted edge? The wontons are fried crisply brown and served on the side. Is it wontons with a side of soup or vice versa? Who cares? The wontons are so good that they don't need the soup, and the soup is so good it doesn't need the wontons, so you're really getting two dishes in one.
And that makes sampling the new fusion entrées all the more depressing. You could have been delighted by a steaming bowl of pho with its dark, mysterious flavors instead of forking through an insipid bistro plate that's long on ambition and short on execution.
Over on Daniel Island there's culinary fusion of a different sort. Dublin Down is a traditional Irish-style pub, complete with pints of Guinness on tap and football on the telly. They take their food seriously, too, with a menu running the gamut from bar snacks to substantial entrées.
What immediately catches the eye is the panoply of Irish-grub-meets-American-bar-fare. There are "Irish nachos" topped with pot roast or lamb, "Reuben spring rolls" filled with corned beef and cabbage, and an "Irish slider bar" with the same slow-braised lamb or pot roast stuffed between tiny rye rolls.
The pub really doubled down with their boxties, the traditional Irish griddle-fried potato pancakes. The cooks apparently noticed the similarity of the broad, flat boxty to the tortilla and adapted it to a slew of Irish-Mexican fusion dishes. There are quesadillas fashioned from boxties folded over gouda cheese ($6) and an "Irish taco bar" offering everything from skirt steak with onions and chipotle sour cream ($9) to a fish taco filled with the fresh catch of the day ($9).
I have to admit that the boxty tacos are quite good, especially the shrimp variety ($9) made with fresh local shrimp that are nicely blackened and topped with a tasty pico and spicy remoulade. But it's not the boxty but the fillings that make them so tasty. If you're impressed by anything, it's that one can make a shrimp taco from a potato pancake that tastes just as good as a shrimp taco made with a tortilla.
The real danger is that diners might be so entranced by the novelty of a boxty quesadilla that they skip ordering the more traditional Irish fare, for that's where Dublin Down's real strength lies. Where else can you order slow-cooked corned beef and cabbage ($11)? The shepherd's pie ($10), with piping-hot beef and vegetables swimming in a rich brown gravy under a super-crisp flaky crust, is an absolute treat, while "Max's bangers and mash" ($10) delivers thick, white Irish sausages and savory whiskey gravy served over a bed of colcannon, a hearty blend of cabbage and mashed potatoes. I don't think you can get that anywhere else in town. This, for me, is the ultimate comfort food, warm and filling, perfectly accompanied by a pint of Guinness, preferably on a cold, gray afternoon.
As different as these two examples are in execution, there's an important similarity. The older, more traditional dishes evolved out of poverty food. They are ingenious ways of taking inexpensive cuts of meat and common vegetables and transforming them through long, slow cooking into something magical. The new stuff is prosperity food, where an ambitious chef throws together a bunch of exotic, expensive ingredients in a desperate bid to impress. What could be more representative of this urge for status than truffle oil, that insidious perfume of haute cuisine with its false promise of drizzling on a touch of class?
One can sense that restaurateurs doubt the appeal of the old traditional stuff. In Quyen's case it seems a drive to be a fancy restaurant, to earn the respect of being a bistro instead of a plain old ethnic restaurant (which we are sorely lacking in this town). In the case of Dublin Down, it seems a lack of confidence that enough patrons will order good old hearty Irish food. As they note right on their website, the menu has plenty of items "for those who wish to keep it light."
And they are probably right. They have a business to run and need to appeal to as broad a market as they can to make a go of it in a tough industry.
As diners, though, I say we vote not with our feet but with our forks. When we see new fusion creations sitting next to classic preparations from whatever the restaurant's designated cuisine is, let's avoid the temptation to say, "Oh that looks interesting ... "
Stick with the classics. There's a reason they became classics in the first place.