A tasteless affair

When I think of Southeast Asia, I remember hot, humid summer days, warm nights, and lush landscapes all around. The heat is a pervasive force in the region, making its people relaxed, friendly, and sometimes lethargic all at the same time. The intensity of the heat is matched only by the intensity of flavors one samples in the local cuisine. The best meals I’ve had were procured by following the aroma of chilies wafting through the streets. When I was able to nearly pinpoint the source of the smells, I would sit on a wooden stool or chair, peruse the menu, and try to match the dishes to their aromas. When my senses got confused, I would simply point to a bowl or plate someone else was having. Inevitably, the food would satisfy a deep, atavistic longing I had for hot spicy dishes, ones which I can now scarcely name, though I remember them in my heart so well. Even in a less exotic locale like Singapore, or a more impoverished region like Indonesia, the sheer variety of curries, seafood, noodle and rice dishes offered at one of the myriad “food courts” and open markets gives these countries an exciting culinary tinge. Anyone who has traveled to Southeast Asia knows it is a great place to expand one’s culinary horizons.

Fusions Asian Bistro, located in Davis, is modeled after such admiration for Southeast Asian flavors, with its “roots” in Burmese, Thai and Indian cuisine. “Within the walls of Fusions lie all the ingredients for an eating Oasis,” the restaurant boasts.

To be sure, Fusions sets the stage for a pan-Asian feast with its Oriental vases, woven baskets, and a nebula-imitating chandelier. Walls of cherry wood augment the nouveau California feel, as does the menu, which draws together an eclectic assortment of exciting-sounding dishes. Little Dragon dumplings, samosas, Korean-style BBQ short-ribs, satay tofu skewers are all offered on the appetizer menu. Fruits such as papaya and mango appear in the salad offerings as well as some entrées, while lemongrass, basil, Chinese “five-spice” and hot chilies find their way into seafood, meat and noodle dishes. Sound like heaven?

Sure. But unfortunately, the taste happened to be much more mortal than it was divine.

To start, the dipping sauces for the appetizer sampler platter seemed charlatans of a sort. The tomato-garlic sauce tasted like off-the-shelf salsa—(which there’s nothing wrong with, if that’s what you’re after)—the sweet Thai chili sauce tasted like sweet and sour sauce, and the coconut curry sauce tasted like a mild dressing. I think there was supposed to be a buttermilk miso dipping sauce somewhere, but nothing I had in the sauce quartet resembled anything like miso. They might as well have given us McDonald’s chicken McNugget sauces: BBQ, honey mustard, sweet and sour, and ketchup. That’s how unimaginative the sauces were.

Meanwhile, the onion bread and vegetarian samosas were both hearty and tasty, but the tofu skewers were predominantly rubbery and the spring rolls were disappointingly average take-out Chinese fare. The refreshing green papaya salad, with fresh carrots, cilantro, and a hint of sweet/tart fish sauce dressing, redeemed the failures of the appetizer platter, but alas, it was only momentary. The entrées disappointed yet again. The tiger prawns noodle dish—with roasted garlic, basil, mushrooms, and green onions—came with the same off-the-shelf salsa-like sauce. While the shrimp was pleasingly fresh and pan-fried to near perfection, it did not compensate for the blandness of the noodles, either with or without the sauce. Conversely, the enormous grilled short-ribs platter—cooked Korean-style—had great garlicky grilled flavor going for it. But the meat was very fatty and the stick carrots and broccoli with a bit of dressing seemed uninspiring and very un-Asian.

How did the vivid flavors of the Asian continent lose their sharpness in the long passage to Davis? My first guess is the location. Fusions is located in a strip mall, and strip malls tend to attract chains and chain-oriented people, who might opt for more muted tones and flavors. But if that doesn’t explain it, my second guess is that Davis lacks the density of immigrants needed to facilitate cuisine that makes your eyes water and your pores sweat. My third guess would be, pan-Asian is a nice concept, but if not carried out well doesn’t make for the most satisfying of meals. Many a restaurant has tried to be several things to several people and ended up being nothing to none.

When Fusions begins to deliver the intensity of flavor for which Asian and Southeast Asian food is so well-known and loved, it might be well worth the trek. The staff is friendly and the selection of beer and wine is decent, with plenty of microbrews on tap. But until then, if you really want to experience the best that Asian countries have to offer, it’s probably best to do your dining one Asian country at a time.