Fuse Lounge Cafe
Brave Flavor: The hip Fuse Lounge Cafe stakes out courageous territory in Carmel.
Thursday, February 5, 2009
This is ambitious. The aim: to strategically squeeze all of the glory of Fuse Lounge Cafe’s prodigious Financial Relief Wednesday buffet onto one of the itsy dishes offered. Hence the tangle of delicious fried calamari must be taller than it is wide. The chef’s choice pesto pasta must stacked strategically. Cheese piling must be precise. Though I still need to pack in carrots, celery, fresh fruit and some Caesar salad, available real estate on this porcelain platform is evaporating quickly.
The experiment in appetizer architecture keeps with a theme here: ambition is the main dish. Beyond the fact that Fuse is courageously making a go of it smack in the middle of a yawning recession– and crafts bold fare like blueberry buttermilk pancake soufflés and cumin-coriander crusted pork tenderloins (served over a root vegetable sauté with haricot verts and with a caramelized apple marsala glaze)– they also host live groups like The Money Band Friday and Saturday (a Carmel rarity), sanction more than their fair share of mixers and benefits and have even started dabbling in karaoke. They can compete on the fancy cocktail front with any joint in town. Meanwhile, their e-mail blast updates are relentless. They even Facebook folks, the first restaurant I’ve ever seen do that. (Shelly Shipley, Fuse’s first Facebook friend, ranks her allegiance with the restaurant as one of her more rewarding friendships).
The modern and stylish setting– with bamboo floors, a gorgeous mahogany bar and lots of surprising color– is as adventurous as any in the conservative village by the sea. And it works. Huge oversized lounge chairs in turquoise tint are more than comfortable– they provide instant conversation fodder (depending on your company, they evoke everything from Alice in Wonderland to gentlemen’s clubs). The sleek tables between them rise just past knee level, so dining at them feels more relaxed and loungy, though there are a variety of different micro-settings including more traditional-altitude tables. An attractive fireplace surrounded by sandstone holds the dining room and bar together from the center. The larger dining room looks out on the newly renovated Carmel Mission Inn’s pool and gardens. Last year’s $6.5 million facelift also includes some welcoming fire pits on a patio across the lobby from the lounge.
While the pancake soufflé and its local berries and apple walnut whipped butter ($9.95) had me tractor beamed temporarily– as did the crepe and eggs (three organic eggs wrapped in herb crepes with a Dungeness hollandaise, $9.95)– an appropriately ambitious omelet ultimately won out on my breakfast visit. One of chef Don Rentfrow’s (late of the Rio Grill) many inspired and inventive options, the Garden Omelet ($9.95) stars avocado, asparagus, roasted red pepper, watercress and marinated mozzarella. Tasty stuff, particularly given the grilled goodness of the asparagus and sweet smokiness of the pepper. Thankfully, Fuse staff tells me they’ve dumped the off-putting potato pancake that accompanied the omelet in favor of a more traditional treatment of their Yukon golds; the sweet and light tomato and fennel slaw, though, is a keeper.
A friend met me for breakfast and tried out the granola, which was forgettable. Here the safer strategy is to go indulgent (i.e. the cinnamon brioche French toast stuffed with cream cheese and fresh strawberries, $9.95).
The dinner menu is also bold (they don’t do lunch). A strong selection of small plates includes the calamari seen on Wednesdays– which is good enough to validate manager Joe Opitz’s claim that he eats it every day and doesn’t tire of it– and more daring fare like “Ahi Three Ways” (sesame tartare, blackened rare and tempura) and a house-smoked salmon tostada with mango salsa. Two pals and I tried the crispy cayenne baby artichokes ($6), which were good with help from a sun dried tomato basil aioli, but it was the highly recommended Firecracker Edamame ($6) which blew us away with its smoky black pepper-crushed chile-garlic character. Tastebuds went boom. Keep the dish around for dipping.
In fact, the stir-fried soy pods proved to be the most exciting item of the night. The entrees (or big plates) we tried were decent, but felt overpriced. The dijon crusted pacific salmon ($22) had a worthy base of blue lake bean, potatoes and an organic spring mix salad with a smoked chile-pumpkin seed vinaigrette, but the farmed filet tasted fishier than ideal. The free-range chicken ($18) enjoyed a tasty tomato caper cream, but was otherwise unremarkable (the “truffle-infused” whipped potatoes didn’t deliver any truffle flavor). Their vegetarian option, the pappardelli pasta with the braised lamb shoulder simply subtracted, still costs $19. The sun-dried tomatoes and festive golden squash were nice elements, but $12 would’ve been a fairer price. On a return visit I might take the middle path proffered by the medium plates, including the Fuse melt– grilled Tasso ham, Jarslberg cheese, tomatoes and watercress between San Francisco sourdough ($9 with fries)– or stick with the small dishes, which are a steal at half price during daily 5-7pm happy hours.
A full bar with a nice line-up of wines completes the beverage side of the equation well, but it’s the buffet that demands a visit. Best of all, it’s as means shrink, the relief hasn’t: They stock it Thursday and Friday 5-7pm as well.
FUSE LOUNGE CAFE Carmel Mission Inn, 3665 Rio Road at Highway 1, Carmel. • 6:30-11am; 5-10pm daily. • 624-1841, www.carmelmissioninn.com