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Photograph by Pete Shea
It's more than the cheese: An artfully assembled cheese plate is just the start of a fine culinary adventure at Fusion.

Review: Full Fusion Finesse

Sophistication and freshness make Fusion an attractive dining surprise

By Christina Waters

Old venue, new menu--in the case of Fusion at Pearl Alley, this turns out to be a very appealing combo. The upstairs lounge/restaurant that for many years was known as Pearl Alley Bistro is one of the sweetest locations in Santa Cruz. If you've been around for a while, you've known this spot as a French bistro, as the area's first wine bar, and more recently as the showcase for the restless cuisine of chef-entrepreneur Marc Westburg. Recently, the vintage dining room was given some fresh attitude and a menu devoted to seasonal and organic ingredients defined by longtime area chef Robert Morris (formerly of Blacks Beach Cafe).

On two recent occasions I was impressed with the whole Fusion operation, from helpful, upbeat servers to delicious dishes presented with style. The terra cotta walls seem to glow at sunset, and a long, low couch under the high windows adds a touch of salon luxury to the interior. Marble counters and that fabulous central bar continue to act as magnets for a vivacious crowd. As we observed, the casually dressed and mannered clientele (at least on weekends) creates an occasional disconnect with the sophisticated menu. Sweatshirts don't seem right with seared ahi. The night Anya and I visited Fusion, the menu offered an irresistible special of duck done three ways--seared breast, foie gras and confit. We also sampled what is becoming Fusion's signature dish, the trio of dayboat sea scallops encrusted with almonds and lime ($20). An a la carte portion of the veggies of the day rounded out that meal, and glasses of Chilean St. Julia Tempranillo 2007 ($7) and Soquel Vineyards Pinot Noir 2006 ($10) enhanced the entire evening.

On a large square plate sat a small cylinder of lipstick-red, microdiced beets, crowned with a two-bite portion of unctuous duck confit and a tangle of radish sprouts. Next, a slice of buttery foie gras gleamed with a wickedly intense black cherry marmalade. And finally a small morsel of duck breast, seared to keep the interior rare and the skin crisp and marinated in chile-laced apricot glaze. Small enough to be considered nouvelle, the three separate treatments of duck were nothing short of brilliant. And frankly, we would have licked it clean if we could have gotten away with it gracefully.

The other entrée was further defined by a thin slice of fiery serrano on each plump scallop. Topped with fresh pea sprouts and sauced with a green chile vinaigrette, it was a luxe presentation served dramatically, on a thin rectangular plate ($20). (Smart of our server to point out the slices of serrano.) We were blown away by the deep bowl of smashed Yukon gold potatoes and English peas served hot and sautéed in their pods ($7).

Nice to have the option to order a side dish of organic vegetables--or not--depending on one's mood and appetite. These were perfect with the two fine entrees.Jack and I returned for another dinner at Fusion, this time enjoying a stylish crab cake appetizer ($9), seared New York steak ($24) and a cheese course ($13). Again, the tempranillo proved very soft and velvety yet able to comprehend the beef. Even better with both the beef and the crab cake was the full-bodied 2006 Soquel Vineyards Pinot Noir ($10).

Dinners at Fusion/Pearl Alley still begin with the round, salted bread loaf topped with sea salt that is a sentimental quote from the restaurant's past. Sometimes the magic works, as in my second dinner, sometimes it doesn't. The bread tasted semi-tough and flavorless on the first occasion. The appetizer creation of Chilean surf crab meat, cilantro and curry powder--a charmingly old-fashioned flavor--arrived in a green pool of spicy cilantro vinaigrette ($9). I loved the unexpected salty-spiciness of the crab cake, which, paired with a salad of organic greens, cauliflower florets and carrots in balsamic dressing ($5), made for a complete and spectacularly satisfying meal.

Jack's seared New York steak was a star! Topped with sweet-tender cipollini onions and drizzled with an intense balsamic reduction, it was presented straight up. The substantial, expertly cooked steak took center stage, European-style. Vegetables are on the side--the meat stands alone. And this exceptionally juicy piece of beef was powerful enough to do just that.

Joined by exquisitely ripe raspberries and blackberries, hazelnuts and almonds, the quartet of appealing, if unchallenging, cheeses was partnered by house-made crackers--a lot of hands-on fun for $13. Very fair prices for very exciting food. I'm ready for Fusion anytime.


Address: 110 Pearl Alley, Santa Cruz

Phone: 831.429.8070

Hours: Open daily 5:30-10pm and
until midnight on weekends,
Sunday brunch 11am-3pm

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