Fusion cuisine is an exhilarating, dangerous realm. The genre's basic tenet, that food is meant to be experimented with, can lead to some fantastic culinary heights -- witness the kitchens at Trotter's and Trio -- but it can also lead to some disastrous concoctions. There is a very good reason why no restaurants offer sauerkraut-spinach lasagna with leberkase, for instance.
Fortunately, most chefs are not interested in inflicting such cruelty on their patrons, and the landscape is now dotted with charming, interesting fusion restaurants just waiting for the adventurous diner. The Critics recently visited several such refectories, and return with this report.
Chef Antonio di Pescini was an MFA candidate at L'Istituto di Arte in Milan before turning to the kitchen, and his focus on the Futurist Movement of the early 20th century is evident not only in the name and decor of his small restaurant on the edge of the Taylor Street district, but also the food. Di Pescini's main source of inspiration for his daring dishes is founding Futurist Filippo Marinetti's Futurist Cookbook.
The Futurists famously pronounced pasta a scourge upon Italian cuisine, and thus you'll find just one pasta dish on the menu at Futurista, a seared steak ravioli. The sizable pockets of semolina dough serve to insulate the raw meat from the boiling water, cooking just the first millimeter of steak for the ultimate in rare. This is but one of many near-raw meat offerings, and certainly one of the best. The "carne cruda squarciata dal suono si sassofono" (you have to be fluent in the native tongue to read the menu; fortunately, a translations are given), is less successful. Cubes of beef sirloin marinated in various liquors and served over white pepper shaved ice, is visually striking but not very palatable, especially if one utilizes the headphones supplied with the dish, which intermittently blast John Zorn saxophone solos into one's ear.
The "pollo Fiat," a chicken breast stuffed with Moroccan cuscus and crusted with Egyptian goat cheese rests on clouds of vanilla-cinnamon whipped cream, is a bit more mainstream. The sweetness of the cream tempers the musty flavor of the cheese nicely, and contrast nicely with the minty cuscus. Di Pescini constructs delicate towers of puff pastry cylinders, lightly browned, marinated geraniums and balsamic-glazed portobellos in his interpretation of garofani allo spiedo. The "guerrailetto" -- literally, "war in bed" -- is a challenging take on Chinese sweet-and-sour soup. It derives its sourness from pineapple juice and its sweetness from cocoa and almond paste, with egg whites and caviar adding a creamy texture.
Dessert is where di Pescini really shines. Futurista's signature dessert, the lyrically named "elettricita atmospheriche candite," is a whirl of champagne-flavored spun sugar encircling a mound of deep-fried pineapple chunks. The interplay of flavors and textures is heavenly. It is followed closely in greatness by the "gelato fritto," an Italian take on fried ice cream featuring fennel gelato in a parmesan crust. And those grilled geraniums reappear as garnish on the excellent, if alcohol-soaked, tiramisuvio -- the only tiramiso flambé in the city.
The service staff is bombastic and long-winded, again in the Futurist tradition. Be prepared for a ten-minute oration on the philosophy of the restaurant and the genius of its chef -- and that's before the daily specials list. The all-Italian wine list is quite wide but not very deep, however nearly everything is available by the glass.
Trattoria Futurista is open Thursday, Friday and Saturday for dinner only; Reservations recommended.
At Tibetan Heaven, a little out-of-the-way establishment located on South Appleton Road, most diners are too entranced by the chanting of saffron-robed servers bearing platters of subtly spiced food to truly appreciate the inventiveness of the menu.
Who would think that Louisville, Kentucky, would be home to mixed-up, mashed-up Tibetan food? Nobody. And that explains the wide-open reservations book and near-empty dining room. In fact, just this reviewer and a lone bemused family graced Tibetan Heaven's doors last Tuesday evening.
I stared blankly at the menu while eavesdropping on the family's order. The youngest, a wall-eyed tot clad in a grubby jumper, asked the server for a bowl of thentuk, a delicious noodle soup, pronouncing it "thayuntock." She then asked if she "could spell the words with it." Surprisingly, she server replied in the affirmative, explaining that their thentuk was indeed made with letter-shaped noodles familiar to the American palate. Surely, this trick would go a long way to increasing literacy rates among Tibetan nomads. First Louisville, then the roof of the world.
Our orders of balep korkun arrived at approximately the same time. While I savored the smell, feel, and delicate flavor of this authentic bread, the family eagerly adorned the bread with the accompanying tray of "fixins" actually served in a "fixins cart" similar to those you'd see alongside your baked potato at the local Steak 'n' Spud. And these fixins? Ketchup, BBQ sauce, Cheez Whiz and sour cream. Surely, the lamas of Tibet did not meditate with bellies full of such suburban fare?
But lest my pointed, urbane remarks be misconstrued as cruel, let me tell you that I did feel a special kinship with this family when it came dessert time. It seems that we both glanced away from our reflections in the lovely server's shiny bald pate and found the same answer. Our hearts simultaneously whispered "Rinpoche Delight." And after one bite you'll dispute this. "Whisper?" you'll say, "Rather, shout!" But do not disturb the dharma!
We asked gently for more of these delightful sugar-filled pillows. Sure to aggrevate tanha, toasty-warm Rinpoche Delight teased our watering mouths. Brown sugar, nuts, and sweet rice came together in ecstatic harmony! Later, while paying my bill, I read an article about Steven Segal's Tibetan tastes, in which he's quoted as saying, "As a rinpoche myself, these little babies are just right for my ass-kickin' appetite." Too true, Rinpoche.
But why are they so good? It seems that Rinpoche Delight is made just once a week when the head chef feels mindful. Although this reviewer knows neither the recipe nor the technique, I feel that the making of Rinpoche Delight must be a deliberate process, almost trance-like. A meditation on yak butter, sugar, water made one by a blessed food processor. What is perfection, truly, if not for this dessert? Ask for seconds and even thirds, but the servers will deny you any more than this. This dessert is a test of your will, and one you will be glad to fail.
In all, I shall recommend Tibetan Heaven, if not for its ham-handed attempts at ingratiating Tibetan cuisine to the American marketplace, but solely for the Rinpoche Delight, my newest addiction.
One of my favorite new spots, the subterranean Anarchy, exploded onto Chicago's culinary scene when it opened early this year. Located near Chicago and Western Avenues in the city's Ukrainian Village neighborhood, Anarchy combines arresting flavors and a flair for dramatic presentation, proving again and again that this upstart newcomer isn't afraid to break the rules.
Though it has only been open a short time, the restaurant has already developed a small yet fanatical following. In addition, Anarchy's location might be Chicago's best-kept secret, no doubt contributing to its appeal. The entrance to the restaurant is concealed, hidden partway down a narrow alley just off Western Avenue. From the street it is invisible, and cars and casual pedestrians pass by the alley entrance, unaware of the restaurant's existence.
Patrons descend a short flight of concrete steps to a battered, unmarked black door to gain admittance. Beyond the entrance, the interior of the restaurant lives up to the promise of the exterior. Cement walls and an exposed pipe ceiling make Anarchy feel like a cross between an industrial loft and your grandmother's basement. Bare light bulbs dangling from the ceiling weakly illuminate the room and complete the effect.
Don't be fooled, however, by the apparent surface squalor. The stark decor reflects the radical culinary philosophy of Anarchy's lone proprietor. The kitchen excels at mixing unpredictable ingredients to create an electrifying menu.
On this particular outing, my dinner partner and I started our evening with a bang by having a couple of drinks. Their Molotov cocktail, an Anarchy specialty, is to die for. A shot of Russian vodka with a splash of 151-proof rum is ignited and blown out before drinking. Although you can't go wrong with most of the drink selections, if you order wine for dinner, steer clear of the house wine -- its bouquet and notes remind one unpleasantly of antifreeze.
However, Anarchy's genius for igniting things extends far beyond the drinks menu. In fact, they blow away the competition when it comes to fiery foods. The dining room is regularly punctuated with bursts of flame as courses are served, briefly lighting the room like beacons. I ordered the duck flambé seasoned with cinnamon and cayenne pepper while my partner ordered the steak flambé. Both were done to perfection.
The entree portions are generous, but we managed to save room for the cherries jubilee and Anarchy's own sensational version of the death by chocolate dessert. By the time we paid our check, we thought we would explode if we tried to eat another thing.
Anarchy is dynamite and well worth the trouble to seek out. I am happy to count myself among Anarchy's fervent followers.
Anarchy does not take reservations. Nor does it accept credit cards or personal checks. Hours vary. Closed Mondays.