Kosher Fusion

Why is good seafood such a rarity on the Beach? Donít ask. Just eat.

To paraphrase an old tag line for Levy's Kosher Rye Bread: You don't have to be Jewish to enjoy Fusion 41. But it helps. I say this not because of the restaurant's menu, which features fresh fish prepared and presented in contemporary fashion; other than being kosher, it has little to do with Jewish cooking. The modern, suavely styled décor is likewise nondenominational. In fact the only reason that being Jewish might enhance your appreciation of Fusion 41 is that almost everyone else in the 60-seat dining room is. And they all seem to know one another from the neighborhood.

Baruch Sandhaus, owner of this new eatery on Arthur Godfrey Road in Miami Beach, would be more than happy to see patrons of all faiths stop in for dinner. In an attempt to provide universal appeal, chef Alex Garcia, from Miami, has dipped deep into the well of global recipes. He really needn't have plumbed so far, for the dearth of seafood eateries on the Beach should be enough incentive for folks to give Fusion a try.

Chef Garcia's finesse with fish is the main reason to visit. The list of catches includes salmon, grouper, tuna, wahoo, and Chilean sea bass. As already noted, ingredients are culled from all over, but the cuisine is securely hooked into the Mediterranean arena. That's where our salad starter of "heirloom tomatoes, goat cheese, and wilted spinach" derives its influence. Because of the wilted aspect of the greens, one might think the goat cheese, too, would be slightly warmed. But there was no spinach, and the cheese stacked between the tomatoes was very similar to mozzarella in texture — in other words, a basil-less Caprese salad. Balsamic vinaigrette was drizzled atop the notably ripe, flavorful red, yellow, and green heirloom slices. Pink and white meat colored a flaked salmon/sea bass cake, the plump, lightly breaded patty currying favor with turmeric and chili oil, which seeped into an ample pile of red cabbage slaw below.

An appetizer sampler containing three seafood presentations proved an awful lot to eat prior to a main course. Seaweed-wrapped sea bass came steamed and tied with a nori bow, served over cinnamon-spiked red cabbage. The same vegetable, slaw style, supported a generous heaping of dark, diced, sesame-oiled tuna tartare. In the center cup was a sizable square of steamed salmon — fresh, but not "sesame-crusted and seared" — with steamed brown rice beneath. Where I come from, we call a plate of food like this "dinner."

It is possible to order a simply dressed fish, such as grouper au poivre or teriyaki-glazed salmon. Most entrées, though, come complexly adorned, and some of the ingredient pairings don't sound especially fetching — such as the "Tijuana salmon" fused with corn relish and strawberry Worcestershire sauce.

There was con-fusion concerning what was described on the menu as "roasted whole snapper with citrus herbes de Provence, roasted pears and fennel, and tarragon butter." What arrived at the table was breaded, deep-fried snapper stuffed with cherry compote. The fruit was a bit much for the mildly flavored fish, which was cleanly crusted and moist within. Nevertheless we asked if we could have the snapper as it was supposed to come, and were brought a closer, but still inaccurate, version. For one thing, the pears, fennel, and tarragon butter were missing again, although this time the first two appeared on a separate plate a few minutes later. Once more, the fish was adeptly cooked, and pooled in an intensely orange butter sauce. After we finished our meal, the manager came over and apologized about the mixup, and told us that coffee and dessert were taken care of. That's always a smart thing to do, and shows Fusion has the proper attitude about keeping customers satisfied.

Because menu descriptions proved less than reliable, I couldn't help but suspect that the only wood my "cedar-baked" wahoo ever touched was the bottom of a fishing boat. Again no complaints on the delectably delicate white flakes of flesh, nor with roasted carrot and parsnip slices on the side. An extensive selection of kosher wines will be available soon.

Diners are offered any two of the menu's side dishes with each entrée, although the choice boils down to mostly starches; aforementioned roasted vegetables are the closest you'll come to a green. Dinner, therefore, could ostensibly consist of fish with onion mashed potatoes and Moroccan rice pilaf (really regular rice spiked with dried fruits, nuts, and cinnamon); or Parmesan risotto (a sticky, mushy, cheesy, yet relatively tasty pile of overcooked kernels) and thick, homemade, roasted sweet potato "fries" with herbes de Provence (which looked a lot like sesame seeds). Need I mention that meals here are filling, and even more so if you load up on thick slices of white bread and soft butter prior to ordering? Appetizers run $8 to $15, main courses $20 to $32, but if you break it down by the pound, it's not a bad deal.

Portions this large haven't been seen in these parts since Klime Kovaceski sold his celebrated Crystal Cafe in 2004. Fitting, if coincidental, because Fusion 41 occupies Crystal's old spot. The room has been stripped of ceiling fans, hanging lights, carpeting, paintings, and Klime's multitude of framed awards, which has the unexpected effect of making it seem smaller. The décor is now defined by mustard-yellow walls bearing modern artwork and frosted sconces — and two large, shiny, twirling silver mobiles hanging on either side of the restaurant's front door. It is altogether a handsome, welcoming environment, although on one occasion there were such incredibly loud rumbles and thumps coming from above that it was easy to imagine the upstairs space being occupied by a school for sumo wrestlers.

Just a few pasta dishes appear on the regular menu, but a one-page insert lists additional nightly noodle specials. Rigatoni puttanesca, one of the permanent offerings, featured thick ribbed cylinders tossed with tomatoes, onions, and black olives, as well as uncustomary peas, sun-dried tomatoes, and far too many half-moons of artichoke bottoms — all in a smooth and creamy tomato sauce. Puttanesca generally contains hot peppers, capers, and anchovies, but it was a satisfying if not traditional rendition.

Desserts are few and filled with chocolate: a gigantic wedge of dark chocolate-coated three-layer chocolate cake with cherry cake in the middle, and a flourless dome of chocolate cake with a molten center. Both are rich, sweet, and sided by a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Another visit brought tiramisu in place of the molten dome. The hefty square of cake touted more cream cheese than mascarpone, but was fresh and permeated with alluring espresso/cocoa flavor. Although it's large enough for two, $9.95 is still a lot to ask. Can we ask that as the dessert menu grows, nonchocolate selections be added?

It doesn't require more than 10 seconds to remove a piece of tiramisu from the fridge and dust it with cinnamon powder, yet it took 15 minutes for the cake to arrive. Our waitress explained the kitchen was backed up. There were only three other occupied tables of four in the restaurant, two of which had already been served. Shortly before the tiramisu showed up, the third group was brought its entrées — meaning we had been waiting for the kitchen to prepare four dinners before our one dessert got plunked onto a plate. This delay suggests the kitchen is understaffed and/or mismanaged — it's difficult to say which. It's easy, however, to note the lack of sufficient workers in the dining room. On our visits, there were only two waiters and one talented, hard-working manager on the floor. The servers were amiable, and hustled to pick up the inevitable slack, but they were further handicapped by the lack of a busperson. At times it took so long for our plates to be cleared that I half-expected to see mold grow on the leftover food.

The restaurant opened only two months ago, so kinks in service aren't surprising. The chef needs to sharpen his focus on specificity of ingredients, and also tweak the side dishes, but the food is solid and the ambiance inviting. You really don't need to be Jewish to enjoy Fusion 41. To be patient, though, wouldn't hurt.

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