Fun With Fusion

Martinis and munchies fuel the floor show at Fusion.

Fusion 1212 West Sixth Street Kitchen hours, Monday through Thursday, 4 to 10 p.m.; Friday, 4 p.m. to midnight; Saturday, 7 p.m. to midnight. Bar stays open later. 216-479-7717
Fusion can play tricks on the eye, even before that first - martini. - Walter  Novak
Fusion can play tricks on the eye, even before that first martini.
For a place where a guy can get his heinie spanked by roving bands of pie-eyed bachelorettes, Fusion, a trendy tapas bar in the Warehouse District, features food that's a hell of a lot better than it needs to be. This is by no means a complaint. But with Fusion's dim, moody ambiance, its skin-baring hordes of the young and restless, and its 10-megaton "martinis," it's debatable whether the clientele really cares about what's cooking.

That's too bad, because chef Fred Williams's creative tapas-style fare, a stylish amalgamation of Asian, Latino, and Mediterranean accents, is generally outstanding. Although some of the more irresistible dishes (think jazzed-up potato chips, nachos, and quesadillas) are clearly variations on an old theme, the noshes are elevated by imagination, a mile-high flavor factor, and presentation that is handsome, whimsical, and entirely more interesting than what you'd find at the corner bar.

And then, there's the impromptu floor show. The ersatz revue began quietly enough on a Saturday night, when we sneaked in around 8:30 to snare a table. At that early hour, a few of the high barstools were occupied by guests apparently on their way to somewhere else, but nearly all of the cozy, velvet-lined, U-shaped booths were up for grabs. Four of us crowded into a prime location on the main floor. While many more secluded spots were tucked into various nooks and crannies, we wanted to be where we could see and be seen when the late-night crowds began to arrive. In the meantime, though, there was still plenty to amuse us. Beyond the lengthy appetizer menu and martini list, the high-ceilinged room is itself a treat, with tall Corinthian columns, a neon-edged bar, and sinuous glass light fixtures. Half-walls, narrow passageways, and short staircases give the place a mysterious, maze-like quality -- an impression that is heightened by the lavish use of mirrors and plate glass. Along one half-wall, a series of small, framed monitors displays a trippy, endless-loop video, more or less choreographed to the hypnotic house music; behind the bar, soaring interior windows separate Fusion from Liquid, its more casual doppelgänger, and provide a view of that watering hole's own spacy decor.

We drank, we ate, we drank some more, and sure enough, by 10:30 p.m., the extemporaneous entertainment was running at full bore. Besides a bride-to-be (sucking booze from an oversized penis-shaped water bottle) and her retinue (the aforementioned spankers, who were happy to oblige when one of my serenely smiling companions decided to, ahem, turn his other cheek), knots of good-looking people were everywhere, weaving, bobbing, and turning a routine trip to the restroom into a diverting contact sport. Beyond shouting orders for another round, conversation was almost impossible, but what the heck: Like a real-life version of Tony n' Tina's Wedding, little vignettes of love, lust, and intrigue were unfolding all around us, and all we had to do was watch.

It's worth remembering that Fusion is not where you want to be if you have a beer or wine jones. As the menu clearly states, this is a martini bar, mister, and martinis -- or something like them -- are the order of the day. Sure, not many of the 100-plus concoctions -- sweet, fruity little numbers with puerile names like Jolly Rancher, Sugar Cookie, and Grape Popsicle -- are anything early-20th-century humorist Robert ("I must get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini") Benchley would recognize; and, yes, just as pouring motor oil on a pancake doesn't make it maple syrup, pouring booze into a martini glass doesn't make it a martini. But once a purist gets past all that, exploring the drink menu is a hoot. Who knew, for instance, that a Shady Lady, composed of tequila, grapefruit juice, and melon liqueur, would go down so easily with baked brie, wrapped in crisp puff pastry and sided with sliced strawberries in a sweet-hot spiced raspberry syrup? And that a Banana Split, with Godiva, Godet, and banana liqueur, would make such a flavorful addition to stylized strawberry shortcake, with layers of tender sponge cake alternating with strawberry jam and white-chocolate mousse?

Still, the savory dishes called for more grownup drinks, and here we turned to traditional gin-based cocktails. For instance, the Blue Devil, made from Bombay Sapphire gin and blue curaçao, was the perfect companion to sharp-and-salty gorgonzola-and-scallion-topped Liquid Potato Chips, thickly cut with crisp edges and seductively chewy interiors. Likewise, the True Blue martini, with gin, dry vermouth, and blue-cheese-stuffed olives, seemed custom-made for the rich bruschetta, loaded with marinated mushrooms, basil oil, chopped tomato, caramelized onion, and Stilton. And the Perfect Martini, a sweet-but-bracing blend of Tanqueray, bitters, and both sweet and dry vermouth, was a fine foil for the Funky Nachos, an imaginative, sweet-and-piquant combo of fried wonton "chips," topped with Monterey Jack, sesame chicken strips, scallions, and mushrooms, and garnished with radish sprouts, pickled ginger, fiery siracha, and wasabi sour cream. But amid all this abundance, be mindful that each and every martini will set you back either $8 or $10. On the other hand, be aware, too, that these babies are high-test: Drink too many and you will probably need the services of a designated driver.

While the drinks may be pricey, the generously apportioned appetizers -- typically, enough to serve as a light entrée for one or as a snack for two to four people -- are reasonably priced, mostly in the $6 to $10 range. A diner can easily cobble together a three-course meal, with salad, "entrée," and dessert, for less than $20. Rare, coriander-crusted tuna, for instance, fanned around a tidy vertical salad of shredded daikon radish and finely diced cucumber, and served with wasabi and sweet soy reduction, made a fine main course and was artfully presented on a black triangular plate, with a fried wonton "sail" rising above. Two plump lobster tails, buttery and firm inside their tempura-batter exoskeletons, were a happy yin-yang of the crisp and the moist, while a golden, fried-wonton "seashell" held a zesty honey-mustard sauce for dipping.

Four crostini, cut from a French baguette and layered with horseradish cream and thin slices of rare beef tenderloin, were delicately delicious, and we look forward to trying items like duck quesadillas, the Mini Surf & Turf, and the 1212 Crab Cakes on future visits. In fact, the only dish that failed to wow us was the orchid-garnished BBQ shrimp, settled against a creamy, crunchy cole slaw: Even the excellent chile-spiked barbecue sauce wasn't enough to make these overcooked little crustaceans sparkle.

Most of the desserts -- temptations like that strawberry shortcake, as well as devil's food cake and banana-mascarpone cheesecake -- come from Seballos Pastries and were fresh and flavorful, if not as novel as what came before. Rather, the most irresistible sweet proved to be the kitchen's own butterscotch pudding -- thick, rich, with an intensely caramelized flavor. Sided by a vanilla-and-chocolate-swirl Melted Milkshake martini, it brought the evening to a suitably indulgent close.

And don't forget: The spankings are always on the house.

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