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Fine, Fine Fusion

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.

Other appetizers worth mentioning are the peppered shrimp ($4.95), served with a savory shrimp stock to pour over the rice; an outstanding chicken and sausage gumbo with a rich, medium brown ("peanut butter") roux ($4.95); and the grilled boudin ($2.95), stuffed with sage-scented dirty rice.

Now about those best-selling pork chops ($6.95): I rarely order pork chops anywhere. They seem simple but pose technical challenges that invite disaster. There are 99 ways to go wrong -- and wind up with shoe leather -- and only one way to get them right. The last time I was tempted at a Neo-Southern bistro across town, I was immediately punished with a disastrously dry pair. So here I made a friend order them. To my chagrin, Fusion's center-cut smothered pork chops turned out to be moist and tender, swimming in silky-smooth gravy informed with black pepper. (And they were a third of the other place's price, I might add.)

Side dishes include a wonderful steamed cabbage -- and I don't even like cabbage! -- gently wilted but not falling apart, perky with caraway and the subtlest reminder of bacon. Mustard and collard greens also make appearances on the vegetable o' the day listing, but every time I've been there they've already run out. I can only try, wistfully, to imagine how good they might be.

Since the A Bar opened in August, beverages have been scaled back at Fusion, according to Marc Myles, general manager of all three establishments. You can still get a mixed drink, beer or wine with your meal if you like, but the real selection's at either of the nextdoor clubs. "We wanted a more family-comfortable atmosphere here," says Myles. Still, the Mango Confusion daiquiri is light and fun; so is the collection of island soft drinks, like Kola Champagne, sort of a cream soda, or grapefruit-flavored Ting. If you like ginger, and I mean really like it, go for the Jamaican Ginger Beer -- it's a good standup match for the jerk chicken.

Oh, and the desserts: be still my heart. Sweet potato pie ($2.95) is a favorite of mine, and here it actually tastes like sweet potatoes, not a pumpkin pretender, in a crisp graham cracker crust topped with a pouf of real whipped cream. A friend ordered Fusion's pineapple carrot cake ($2.95), with a surprise swirl of cream cheese wound into its moist heart. The single bite I arm-wrestled her for was wonderful. The rich, dense bread pudding ($2.95), thickly studded with raisins, is also a keeper.

While the menu may run the gamut from Montego Bay to Montgomery, the Cafe's decor is pure islander. The walls are mustard yellow, hung with brightly colored Afro-Caribbean art, including a striking floor-to-ceiling mural by a vanished artist whose name none of the partners can now recall. Jamaican bills and coins -- presumably pre-dating the currency crash of the early '80s -- are embedded in polyurethane resin in the booth tabletops. The net effect is cheerful and noisy at all hours. I do have a quibble with the non-stop stereo: The jazz blaring at night can be festive if you're in the mood, but the reggae din at lunchtime is deafening. And the place gets crowded, which adds to the concrete-floored racket. The staff, bless their hearts, are earnest and well-meaning, but service isn't always ready for prime time; at peak hours -- which seem to be noon and 10 p.m. -- customers good-naturedly line up all the way from the front door to the counter.

"It'll take 12 to 18 months for the restaurant to mature, for everything to run smoothly," Phillips admits. "But then we'd like to look at expanding. Maybe next door, maybe out to the suburbs, and someday -- who knows? -- across the state."

"See what I mean?" asked my husband. "Don't write that article. They'll go Hollywood." As long as they keep serving this food right here, I'm thinking, they can go about as far as they want.

Fusion Cafe, 3722 Main Street, 874-1116


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