Fusion cooking is taking so many twists and turns that one day there's just going to be one big cuisine--a true global village of fine dining.
Some believe the fusion movement got started back in the early 70s when a mythic French chef dropped a slice of fresh ginger into his snail stew. But the concept goes back much further. Refugees fleeing Mao's China in the 50s, who landed in Cuba only to flee Castro, brought Cuban-Chinese cuisine to New York in the 60s. Japanese chefs trained in France during that decade gave the world Franco-Japanese. New Orleans cooking, of course, has always been a blend of French, Spanish, and African. There was Tex-Mex long before anyone thought of Nuevo Latino. All of which is to say the cooking pot was a melting pot well before the term "multicultural" became popular.
Nevertheless, imaginative chefs keep coming up with intriguing new ethnic and regional combinations to grace the palate, as two recent openings illustrate. In the elegant new Wyndham Chicago hotel in Streeterville, John Coletta marries northern California with Tuscany at Caliterra. A few blocks away, in River North, Michael Tsonton uses classic Spanish cooking as a base for his New American flourishes at Brio. The results in both cases are tasty and smart--carrying us several steps closer to that United Nations of cookery.
Chef Coletta, who cooked at the top-of-the-line Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore, even adds a few Asian fillips to his Euro-American blend, such as treating his hand-harvested diver scallops with a ginger-infused carrot emulsion and a whisper of chili sambal oil ($8). Ahi tuna tartare gets California treatment with avocado and a sprinkling of caviar ($9). Roasted portobellos are almost pure Italian with their grilled polenta, asparagus, and Barolo wine reduction ($7). Then Coletta gives your basic Caesar salad an Italian accent with white anchovies and crostini ($6).
A winning starter was the shrimp "cigar," the shellfish rolled up in a thin, phyllolike pastry, lightly fried, then mated with mustard fruits and a light slaw of spring veggies ($8). The plate was decorated with Jackson Pollock-style drips of dense balsamic reduction--though it was so thick and sticky it was difficult to use it as a sauce.
The real showstopper was Coletta's spring pea "cappuccino"--a lush green broth laden with tender baby peas, served in an oversize coffee cup with a creamy white froth, all enriched with truffle oil ($5). This so captivated one of my companions she was loath to share. I had the same reaction to airy potato gnocchi bathed in Coletta's own version of Bolognese sauce--a thick, rich lobster glaze with big chunks of Maine lobster ($15).
Wild salmon from California--done just a bit more than I prefer--got an herbed risotto, wild mushrooms, and a celery-saffron jus ($19). Halibut was crusted with finely minced porcini and set in a shallow pool of zucchini broth sparked by little pickled veggies ($16).
We all agreed that the best entree was the roasted organic chicken breast--you can taste the difference--scented with sage and livened with prosciutto, set atop soft polenta slightly sweetened by mascarpone cheese and moistened with a reduction of balsamic vinegar and figs ($15).
Brio chef Tsonton's previous gig was at Tutto a Posto in Cleveland--Italian food, French techniques, New American concepts. He then did an intensive culinary tour of Spain for Brio's owners, the folks who brought you the two Bistrot Zincs. He takes briny Watch Hill oysters, beds them on cauliflower puree, tosses in a few nuggets of caramelized cauliflower, and lightly anoints all with a touch of Spanish chili oil ($9). Thin slices of superb Serrano ham--what some Spaniards call "our caviar"--get pickled grapes and a confit of apples and almonds as condiments ($6). His octopus salad on baby herbs is tossed with a lemon-anchovy dressing and decorated with a few bits of preserved lemon--a Moorish touch ($7).
In one inspired entree, he sets crisped pieces of codfish in brandada (a rich puree of cod, garlic, olive oil, and cream), tosses on a sprinkle of gray-mullet caviar, and drizzles it with green-olive vinaigrette ($18); in another he sets roast salmon on an interesting puree of white beans and celery root, perfectly set off by the sweet-salty carrot jus with sherry ($17).
For pure comfort food, there's Tsonton's rendition of cocido, which in Spain is a ham-stock-based soup/stew with garbanzos and a mixture of preserved meats. Here, there's just a splash of broth in a bowl containing a duck-leg confit, a savory homemade chorizo, and a hunk of slightly salty preserved pork that's ready to fall apart; apply the zingy green sauce or grape conserve as condiments ($19).
Caliterra is on the second floor of the Wyndham Chicago, 633 N. Saint Clair (312-274-4444). Brio is at 10 W. Hubbard (312-467-1010). --Don Rose
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.