Fusion Is Wrong, But Pinto Gets It Right

Finding the upside of drunken food sex.

Fusion cuisine is big. Fusion cuisine is smart. Fusion cuisine is gimpy and obtuse and lazy and ridiculous. It's gastronomy 101 for the overeducated, travel-sick, and hopelessly romantic white jacket—and a sin like blasphemy against the church of flavor. Fusion cuisine is just one of those things—like writing terrible poetry, moving to New York, or getting tattoos of cartoon characters—that seems like a good idea, maybe even an important idea, when you're young. For chefs, it's almost a rite of passage—a thing you do because you feel like you've invented it, because it feels like everything else has already been done. Young chefs like fusion because they're in love with ingredients and technique and live in daily, quaking fear of canon. They do it because there's always a moment when it seems like a tofu pot pie with tamarind syrup or duck-liver-mousse gyoza with balsamic reduction is a good idea—because until you taste it one or a hundred times, everything seems like a good idea. But like so many things, fusion becomes less attractive and seems less wise the older you get and the longer you do it. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, fusion remains a bad idea. In order to do it right, you either have to be very bold or very talented or very smart or all three—this in an industry where most chefs are none of the above, and some of them can be flummoxed by the simple interaction of a lemon and a knife if either the lemon or the knife look different than it did in the cloistered halls of culinary school. You have to have an idea of where the cuisines you're fusing naturally come together—what traits they share, what flavors they have in common. You have to do your addition, subtraction, and division with the care of a rocket scientist planning a trip to Planet Weird. It's so easy to go wrong. Botch a fraction somewhere and that's it. You're tumbling off into deep space all alone, and no one in the neighborhood can figure out why you wanted to open an Indo-Bulgarian restaurant in the first place. Yet without fusion cuisine, there would be no innovation, no experimentation. Traditional cuisines would molder and calcify until all there was to eat was the same stuff our grandparents ate aboard the QE2 or at Sunday dinners down on the farm. The food world needs people to be stupid and daring, because without the kind of pure-science experimentation that goes on under the umbrella of "fusion cuisine," that 100th dish out of 100 will never be conceived. Fusion gives rise to the next generation of chefs and traditions. In that way, it's the culinary-world equivalent of half-drunk, Saturday-night casual sex with a stranger: It's not always a good idea, not always wise, but every now and again, it's how great discoveries are made. At Pinto Thai Bistro and Sushi Bar, the fusion starts with the name, goes crazy on the floor, and ends only a night later, with me standing front-lit and chilled before the refrigerator eating the last of the leftovers right out of the box. It is many kinds of restaurants in one: a Thai restaurant involved in some kind of high-speed collision with a fast-moving sushi bar, with the inevitable tangle resulting in, on the one hand, a mashup—pure panang curry, pad see eiw, and tom kha existing in discreet spaces, but rubbing up close against yakisoba with bonito, kanikama crab stick nigiri, futomaki, miso soup, and gyoza. On the other, in the places where the wreckage becomes too entangled, Pinto does pure fusion, offering complete geosocial oddities like Samurai Pad Thai, Japanese curry stew, red mango maki with fruit salsa and mayonnaise, and New York cheesecake topped with lychee syrup. No map can define the boundaries of Pinto's catch-me-if-you-can menu. It is as international as some kind of psychotic Foreign Service lawn fete, as diverse as the line for the U.N. men's room after chili night in the canteen. Open for nearly three months on Broadway in the former home of the falafel favorite Ali Baba, Pinto announces its definitions boldly—couching all the Thai and Japanese food, the odd Latino influences, a bit of French, a bit of Chinese and Americanism and modernism and flat-out, careless, anti-traditional odd-ism—in a room that seems to mock all this breezy internationalism with pale wood paneling, recessed lights in sherbet hues, white chairs, white tables, and white plates. Reading the name, seeing the contortions of the menu, one might expect bamboo and pictures of sharp Ginza neon, Le Chat Noir posters, prints of the Eiffel Tower, Buddhas, maneki neko good-luck cats, and maybe an armadillo wearing a cowboy hat. The effect of all this lack can be jarring. The Pinto Signature Maki is Pinto the restaurant defined by food. Listed among the sushi, coming from the short, overstocked sushi bar, it is, from the outside in: tuna tartare with an honest kick of spice; planks of soft, buttery avocado and crisp cucumber; nori; a jumble of rice (pressed less expertly than I'd hoped, but nicely prepared); cross-cut yellowtail with a lovely texture and fresh, oily flavor; plucked leaves of cilantro; carefully sliced, quartered, and peeled triangles of lime; and massive piles of jalapeno slivers, mounded on like I'd won some sort of contest. The Pinto Signature Maki is overwhelming, confused, aggressive with belligerent flavors all slugging it out, a little bit childish, joyous in its higgledy-piggledy mishmash of Japanese and Thai and Mexican ingredients, original and strange. It is also really tasty for about six bites, at which point something like oral jet lag sets in and the whole thing just becomes tiresome. It is a whiplash kind of thing—the difference between boldness and exasperation coming in the space between bites and making you wonder what exactly it was you liked so much about it in the first place. Still, for those first six bites, it works. The Pinto Signature Maki was the first thing I ate at Pinto—my first run-in with this place which takes as its inspiration the questionable craze of Edo/Thai fusion sweeping the big cities, the notion of being able to eat exactly what you want (tekka maki or salmon teriyaki) while your date eats something completely different (yellow curry, rich with coconut milk; carved chunks of carrot and potatoes; or a plate of chicken satay). The Japanese curry with beef at Pinto tastes like an Indian curry mated uncomfortably with a can of Dinty Moore beef stew. Over rice, it almost feels in the mouth like a cheap, mama-made-this gumbo—with a gumbo's thickness and stickiness and bright bloom of flavor. The satay is satay, the miso soup just miso soup. There is a gentleness to the Thai yellow curry that I like—a sense of competence in the kitchen embodied in a medium-heat curry that tastes rounded and whole. I eat it with a spoon because the rice, for some reason, has a grainy texture to it I don't like—white but tasting almost like brown, with a bready aftertaste and the sense that I am eating something healthy against my will. The gyoza, though, are perfect— thin-skinned, pan-fried hot and fast so they can't suck up a gulp of grease, then presented all crisp and crackling with a smooth filling of chicken and vegetable paste. Alone, they are excellent. And somehow, dipped in the "soy vinaigrette" on the side, they're even better. They shouldn't be, but they are. It is one of those moments where fusion pays off. I eat shrimp toasts, which, as translated by Pinto, have no real cultural home, no predecessor that would admit to their odd creation. Imagine, if you will, a Chinese shu mai dumpling turned inside out, the shrimp and pork filling harvested, held aside, then spread on slabs of French bread like finger sandwiches, battered so gently it's barely noticeable, and deep-fried. They taste like small, open-face seafood croque monsieurs, of colliding traditions and of cheapness, the kind of thing chefs cook as snacks for their own crew when the customers go home and the cold beers come out. On a Saturday evening, I skip past the fusion scallops (sautéed al dente with chopped onions, garlic, mushrooms, celery, and snow peas in ginger sauce), drunken udon, and sweet-potato tempura, and put the sushi bar through its paces, washing down workmanlike hamachi, unagi, "classic" tekka maki, and spider and dragon rolls with Kirin from the bottle. All of it is fresh and well put-together, but uninspired. Eating these dishes, I get a sense of laziness behind the bar, a coasting that shows in uneven cuts and less-than-perfect rice. None of it is bad, but none of it is better than what I'd get anywhere else in this city full of sushi. This feeling, though, is wiped away by anything off the "signature" menu. This is where the Pinto roll lives; where one can order a "Snow White" (shrimp tempura, avocado, salmon, escolar, remoulade, and tobiko), a "Butterfly" (salmon, cream cheese, and avocado, deep-fried and sauced with teriyaki and sweet chile), or a "Tropical" roll (salmon, cilantro, mango, avocado, and strawberry sauce). The nouvelle and the lawless, obviously, jump the batteries at Pinto—the sense that anything is possible, even if anything isn't always wise. (Seriously, strawberry sauce?) It wasn't until Sunday, though, that I found that 100th dish: the Samurai Pad Thai. Barely fusion, barely strange, it's nothing more than pad Thai topped with six tempura shrimp, plated simply and served. Under normal circumstances, I don't even like pad Thai. It's so overdone, so ubiquitous, that I'll avoid it if there's anything else worth eating. At Pinto, though, it seemed a smart retreat, after course upon course of the non-traditional, to try a standard to see how it stacks up, how a kitchen that does the original both well and poorly by nothing more than subjective judgment handles a classic dish for which there are a million possible comparisons. To start, it's a perfectly prepared pad Thai—the noodles stiff and a little sticky, but not hard, stir-fried over high heat so that the sauce caramelizes around the edges of the noodles, the bits of egg fluff, the cubes of tofu, and the crushed peanuts. Beyond that, it's a sweeter, more tamarind-heavy version of the omnipresent comfort food (a rendering rarer than its savory counterpart), made sugary first, and only later given a razor's edge by the inclusion of red chile powder and flakes. Finally, the tempura shrimp are nothing more than fried shrimp (which are good) stacked on a mound of pad Thai (also good). Like adding bacon to a burger or a happy ending to a massage, they're just something extra that makes the whole experience better. It's not fusion so much as piling on—good Thai and good Japanese laid on the same plate. And while the Pinto roll might be the single dish that defines the fusion aspect of Pinto-the-restaurant, it's the Samurai Pad Thai that lays down the benchmark for its mashup style: boldness and smarts together—at least two of the three things a fusion restaurant needs to be successful. jsheehan@seattleweekly.comPrice Guide Shrimp toast    $6.50

Gyoza    $6.50

Satay    $7.50

Yakisoba    $9.25

Yellow curry    $8.95

Samurai pad Thai    $12.50

Pinto mak    $13.95


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