Every decade or so, a new culinary caprice climbs aboard the buzzword B&O, and—city by city—restaurants open up to cash in on pay homage to the ‘trend’.
Here in Detroit over the past thirty years or so, there was ‘nouvelle cuisine’, there were ‘trattorias’, there were ‘bistros’, there was upscale down-home white tablecloth soul food…
And these days, the yucky sounding ‘molecular gastronomy’ rears its repulsive head.
Of course, such joints generally have short shelf lives, and if you can strike while the kettle is hot, attract attention, good reviews and a crowd—and are not deluded to think it will last beyond the next flavor-of-the-month—you can sell up to some deluded investor and move on.
It’s a lot like guerilla warfare.
Fusion Vs. Confusion
When I was a sommelier, ‘fusion’ cuisine was the rage, and is probably the most singular example of the absurdity of taking food fashion too seriously, because every culinary style on earth short of that of the Papua Tree People of Southwest New Guinea has some element of fusion to it. Countless Italian sauces, for example, rely on the tomato, which was native to Mesoamerica and didn’t even hit Europe until the 16th Century. Likewise cocoa; but I suppose if your menu listed chocolate mousse torte as ‘Franco-Mex’, you’d have some explaining to do.
Of course, under correct and talented management, some places continue to make fusion cuisine sort of interesting. Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois on Main, blending Chinese and French styles and cooked by an Austrian, is alive and well after thirty years. Hollywood’s Asia de Cuba speaks for itself, even though dishes like Havana-Style Pad Thai say ‘huh?’ more than anything else.
Then There Is The Real Deal
Travel fanatics, if you have never been there, drop what you’re doing and put Catalonia on the bucket list. This intense community, encompassing the Spanish provinces of Barcelona, Taragonna, Llieda and Girona, is itself, the very essence of cultural fusion. Its own nationality, the population is roughly split between speakers of Catalan and Spanish, and its culinary tradition blends styles from Spain, Valencia and France, using ingredients from the mountains as readily as those from the sea.
Here, on the coast between Canet de Mar and Calella, a short drive from Barcelona, is the remarkable Michelin 3-Star restaurant of Carme Ruscalleda, one of the most celebrated chefs in Spain. Restrained, immaculate and known for flawless service, Restaurant Sant Pau fuses Catalan and Japanese culinary traditions while relying on local fish and flesh, with seasonal fruits and vegetables at the core of most dishes.
Offering such well-conceived, intriguing items as Lobster with Black-Olive Froth, Courgette Flower with Yellow Tempura, Maresme King Prawns, Cherries and Chopped Cucumber and an interactive, now-legendary dessert called ‘Moon’ made with coconut and chocolate ganache laced with fresh shiso, the cuisine is equally delicious and intellectual. And guaranteed? Nothing ‘Havana-Style’.
Having begun life as a basic Catalan deli, the evolution of Sant Pau to one of the most talked-about restaurants in Europe has taken twenty years. And, in commemoration of that milestone, Carme Ruscalleda has released CR20—a sparkling Cava, which by its nature is a fusion in its own right. A blend of macabeau, xarel-lo, parellada and chardonnay (only approved as a Cava component in 1986), her sommelier Joan Lluis Gomez—without attempting to suck up to the boss, obviously—describes it like this:
‘A brilliant Cava, like her ideas. Clean and transparent as her honest character; with a fine and constant bubble, like her working philosophy.’
Now, there’s a nose browner than Obama’s.
But, in truth, CR20 is a sensational wine, no question, but I am equally impressed by the apparent humility that Chef shows in using her initials instead of her name on the label. I mean, seriously: Can you imagine weighty waddler Paul Prudhomme releasing ‘PP Magic Seasoning Blends’? Or that semi-gorked, notch-raising buffoon Emeril Lagasse hawking ‘EL All-Clad Cookware’?
These guys should take a lesson from true talent—fusion femme-fatale Carme Ruscalleda—a chef with CR20/20 vision.
CR20 Extra Brut Gran Reserva, Penedès, 2008, around $30: It may be psychosomatic, but I swear this wine manages to incorporate a multitude of flavors from Barcelona bakeries and fruit stands: Yeasty upfront pan de leche, crisp green apples, dried pear, white peach and melon pierced by bubbles méthode champenoise—technology required to wear the Cava DO label. Something is up with the price, though—and if you are interested in that sort of thing, time to buy is now. According to winesearcher.com, since 2009, the cost of a bottle has dropped from $60 to it’s current retail of $30.
Incidentally, the term Cava—Spanish for cave—came about as a result of legal conflicts with France over the use of champán, pissing everybody off on both sides of the courtroom.
Nowadays, with clear improvements in Cava*, as far as the Spanish are concerned? ‘Champagne in Spain goes mainly down the drain’.
* About 95% of Cava comes from Catalonia.
Restaurant Sant Pau
Calle Nou, 10, 08395 San Pol de Mar, Spain