The F word

In culinary circles of late, fusion—once the hottest thing going—has lost its luster and become a bit of a dirty word. I don’t quite reach for my revolver when I hear it, but I do wonder what I’m going to get. Fusion cuisine could be almost anything, but it’s usually a whimsical grab bag of Asian ingredients, European techniques and elaborate plate decorations that betray too heavy a reliance on the plastic squeeze bottle and too little attention to whether the resulting food is something anyone particularly wants to eat.

So, when I set out for Sampan Fusion, I didn’t know what to expect. Named after a kind of Chinese boat, advertising fusion prominently and located just north of the American River in Folsom, Sampan Fusion easily could have been a train wreck of silly combinations. Instead, what I found was a menu of affordable, home-style Japanese standards, plus a sushi bar with fresh, distinctive East-West rolls. The sushi—along with an occasional sneak attack of plate decorations from the plastic squeeze bottle—must be where the fusion comes in.

The place, open for about four months, is housed in a cavernous, multilevel space that used to be home to a Chinese restaurant. It’s been dressed up with paper lanterns, but it still feels too big. It’s more suitable to banquets than to a quiet, casual Japanese dinner for two. The best seating (and the least likely to provoke a fear of wide-open spaces) is on the upper level near the sushi bar.

If you’re looking for a good value, the combination meals are the name of the game here, particularly at lunch, when you get two items plus miso soup, rice and a crunchy iceberg-lettuce salad with creamy sesame dressing, all for $6.95. The two-item dinner combo is $12.95, and you can get three items (enough to feed a small army) for $15.95. Both combos are supplemented with a couple of deep-fried gyoza and an excellent little salad of crisp, vinegary cucumber slices.

The choices are many, including basics like tempura, katsu and teriyaki (the beef we tried was savory and very flavorful); a sashimi selection; and soy-marinated mackerel. The mackerel was a little dry, but its pepperiness complemented the strong flavor of the fish. The deep-fried sesame chicken was less successful, with a sprinkling of sesame seeds but no real sesame flavor in the sweetish, sticky sauce. The thickly battered chicken pieces reminded me more of Americanized Chinese food (an orange-less General Tso’s chicken, say) than of tempura.

During a lull in the meal, the chatty manager (all the servers were pleasant, if overeager) also pointed out the dinner special—$24.95 for two. The night we were there, it included live oysters, sashimi, teriyaki beef ribs, and I suspect some other extras, as well. I’d go back to try it, or to sample the udon and ramen noodle soups, which didn’t sound like quite the thing for a hot May night.

If we had realized that the combinations had so much food, we probably wouldn’t have ordered pan-fried gyoza to start. I’m glad we did, though, because they were great—fresh and delicate, with nearly translucent wrappers, fried to a toasty brown on the bottom and enclosing a juicy pork filling. They were nicely presented, too, encircled with dots of searing chili sauce that were the first hints of a fusion-oriented sensibility in the kitchen.

The sushi menu, however, was where the restaurant’s name really became clear (the fusion part of the name, anyway—I still can’t figure out why it’s called Sampan). A California roll—and a good one, made with sweet fresh crab rather than imitation—was one of the simplest rolls available. From there, complexity increased until it reached the eponymous Sampan Fusion roll, which, according to the menu, managed to incorporate fried shrimp, snow crab, spicy tuna, cucumber, avocado, yellowtail tuna and salmon. How this feat of rice and nori engineering was accomplished I can’t say, because I wasn’t nearly hungry enough to order it.

Instead, I contented myself with a tasty unaten roll with fried shrimp, topped with creamy avocado and smoky-sweet eel, plus crunchy orange tobiko and a squiggle of spicy mayo. Everything tasted fresh, and the sushi was served at just the right room temperature, so the rice held together without being coldly sticky. The two rolls we tried, however, barely scratched the surface. There were more than a dozen other creations on the menu, plus specials like the “Spicy Johnny” (spicy tuna, fried shrimp, and eel) on the board above the sushi bar.

This kind of sushi is, in fact, fusion in its best form. It blends Japanese and American culinary sensibilities while avoiding the excesses of the trendy, glitzy fusion restaurants that seemed to be everywhere a few years ago. Sampan Fusion may invoke them in its title, but, thank goodness, the restaurant doesn’t really live up (or should that be down?) to its name.