Fine, Fine Fusion

The Fusion Cafe offers country cooking with urban panache

Lately I've become disheartened by big-city life. I migrated here 20 years ago from the heart of darkest Appalachia seeking hot restaurants, cool nightlife, and a professional basketball team. Now, jaded and cynical, I'm tired of waiting three cycles at each traffic light on Kirby, depressed by nosebleed ticket prices for a locked-out NBA, and sick of trendy entrees posing for a camera, not a knife and fork. And who'd have guessed that when the late-night urban scene I'd dreamed of finally debuted downtown, suburban twentysomethings maquerading as glitterati would overpopulate it?

I could run a bait camp in some remote reach of the Redneck Riviera, I've been thinking. Start a new career in worms and beer. Then -- eureka! -- I found a spot that reminds me why I lusted after the bright lights in the first place. The Fusion Cafe offers down-home cooking with the finesse that flourishes only in urban settings. It's a contradiction in terms that's often puzzled me: Why must country cooking come to the city to get soul? But never mind. This rough-edged little gem of a restaurant, which opened in transitional "mid-town" last February, has shored up my flagging faith in the metropolitan experience. Lucky for the worms, too.

"Please don't review this restaurant," wheedled my husband on our first visit. He attempted an ingratiating smile around a mouthful of fried chicken. "Let's keep this one our secret."

It's too late for that. Positioned at the unpromising corner of Main and Alabama, the Fusion Cafe has already been discovered by urban adventurers, cross-pollinated by the neighboring jazz-oriented A Bar and Liquid Lab Cyber Cafe, both not-so-coincidentally owned by the same group of entrepreneurs: Greg Phillips, Chris Lowe and Antonio Torres. (Torres joined the partner's group when they bought his Liquid Lab and moved it from Westheimer and Dunlavy this summer.) It's the latest in Late Night Scene, serving till 2 a.m. on weekends. But don't hold that against them, and don't let the overused and much maligned F-word scare you off, either. Here "fusion" refers not to bastardization of the foods, but a meltdown of attitudes: a knowing innocence, passion with polish.

Most of the recipes on the Fusion Cafe's amalgamated roster were handed down from the owners' mothers: one Jamaican, one Cajun and one from East Texas. "Our mamas actually worked the stoves during our 'soft' openings," says Greg Phillips. (He's the East Texan, also an attorney.) "Our friends and families tasted and rated the results, and that's how we came up with our menu."

At first reading, the repertoire sounds ho-hum: fried chicken, smothered pork chops, red beans and rice. What you'd never guess until the steaming plate's in front of you is that these are the archetypal versions of those fundamentals, the yardsticks against which pretenders should be measured.

Take fried chicken ($5.95), for example. When was the last time you even contemplated ordering fried chicken in a sit-down restaurant? A whole lost generation has never tasted chicken like this -- crisp, salty skin outside, moist and firm inside -- people who've grown up thinking fried chicken comes only in greasy paper buckets tainted with car exhaust. Fried chicken is all about technique; since I can't do it and my own mama won't, I'll take my deprived children to Fusion Cafe for fried chicken, as a solo entree or playfully perched atop a deep-pocketed, chewy Belgian waffle liberally dusted with powdered sugar.

This peculiar-sounding treat, chicken and waffle ($4.95), has become a Fusion Cafe trademark. It is truly urban, explains Phillips. "It began in the Harlem speakeasies, when the owners of after-hours clubs ran out of everything to serve their hungry customers but waffle mix and leftover chicken. Then a man named Roscoe took the recipe out to Los Angeles, where he's now opening his eighth or ninth chicken-and-waffle restaurant." Phillips says the waffle concept came from the late Craig Allen, a friend of Roscoe's and one of the original partners in Fusion; Allen also sparked the idea behind Fusion itself.

A team of four professionals now mans Fusion's stoves: David King, Clive Green, Lloyd Williams and Alton Ellis. But they're cooking with the same assurance and bold hand with seasonings as the hallowed mamas. "The spiciest thing we offer is the Jerk Chicken," advised the girl taking orders at the brick counter that doubles as the Cafe's bar. "The curry chicken is middle of the road spicy, and the brown stew chicken ($6.25) is for people who get nervous around hot peppers. And the smothered pork chops are what we always run out of first."

Oh yes, that jerk chicken is spicy. I started with the appetizer wings ($3.95), which are fried, bathed in jerk sauce, then served with a cool ranch dressing for dipping. On first bite, my tongue tip tingled with red pepper. Another bite, and the sides of my tongue registered the presence of black pepper. Halfway through the incendiary platter, my scalp levitated pleasantly. The dinner order ($6.50) is milder: three large chicken pieces are marinated with the same vinegary jerk sauce, then blackened on the grill, which takes some of the edge off the mix.

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