People who have nothing better to do than track trends already have proclaimed fusion the fashionable food of '96. Asian-influenced anything was the rage last year; fusion adds any and all types of cuisine to the melting pot. Not that fusion is really anything new--melding of, say, French and Asian techniques and ingredients has been done for decades--but no one had come up with a snazzy word for it. Now, by borrowing a term from music and art, they have--which means that food journalists have their first fad of the new year.

You won't find me going crazy over fusion, though, because it's actually little more than a natural extension of nouvelle. Both styles rely on Asian cooking methods to lighten the heavier preparations of other countries; both embrace the time-honored Asian traditions of using fresh-fresh components and making colorful, innovative presentation a major part of the final dish. So what's new about fusion? The number of new restaurants that devote themselves to it--whether they admit it or not.

One of the youngest and brightest is Michael's of Cherry Creek, which sounds like a beauty salon but is really a warm, smartly decorated eatery with an atmosphere bathed in the shimmers of pseudo-candlelight and a snappy staff that knows its way around a dining room. The front of the house is overseen by Anitra Carr, who met Michael Shiell, Michael's chef, four and a half years ago. At the time, the two were working at a Creole restaurant on Long Island; they got engaged and moved back to Colorado, where Carr has family ties. After stints at a few eateries in Vail, they wanted their own place. So in September they took over the revolving-door of a spot most recently occupied by La Piazza and before that, Barclay's, and before that, well, you get the picture. "We had an exorcism and got rid of all the demons," Carr says.

But they also had to get rid of Shiell's initial menu and a few of the too-high-even-for-Cherry-Creek prices. "Michael's stuff was a little, um, funky, for some people," Carr explains. "Once he toned it down, we found that people just needed the food to be more user-friendly."

Although the dishes are still a bit on the structural side, they're not so overly engineered that they fall to the floor when you stick a fork in them. And some of the pieces are actually functional as well as attractive, such as the three-caviar torte that came alongside the ahi tuna appetizer ($8). The fish eggs were layered in a small box shape that made it easier to sample all three in one spoonful, and they looked spiffy next to the slices of lightly seared tuna crisscrossed with a potent Thai mustard. Less elaborately arranged but no less impressive was the tempura shrimp ($8), one of Shiell's signature items that deserves its rank. The three large shrimp wore a thin shawl of crispy-light batter, its delicate flavor beautifully matched with the sweet-tartness of a raspberry-soy dipping sauce. Our third appetizer order, the dashi steamed mussels ($9), delivered the almost impossible: too much of a good thing. We dug into about two pounds of mollusks, deliciously fresh and well-suited to a gingery broth touched with lime.

Two tiny bowls of soup followed the appetizers. Compared with the portions at other restaurants, these were small; compared with the mussels, they were a strange joke. Even so, we had more than we wanted of the dull, ultrasmooth vegetarian black bean ($4); the above-average cream of leek ($4), on the other hand, had us hungering for more.

We got it with the entrees. Shiell's classic training (he once worked for master chef Guy Pousche) showed in the fish-sauce-enhanced potato puree that held up a fillet of perfectly grilled salmon ($16), which also benefited from a mild pasilla aioli and a sweet red-pepper-onion ragout. Sweetened-up onions also played a major role in the wild-mushroom risotto ($13), a serviceable but not impeccable rendition that played caramelized pearl versions of the bulb against the earthiness of shiitakes. The pork medallions ($16) offered a more subtle yet remarkable combination. Initially, the "Pacific" ratatouille--carrots, zucchini, onions and squash scented with that shyest of herbs, thyme--and the steamed spinach seemed ill-suited to the juicy meat, but small, crunchy, semi-spicy chile fritters and a mild cumin vinaigrette tied everything together.

That dish was a tough act to follow, and only one dessert could: the warm gingerbread cake ($5), a stunning, comfort-food fantasy of roasted apple slices, caramel sauce and creme fraiche adorning moist, spongy cake. Otherwise, the desserts showed none of the kitchen's savvy ingredient pairings. The strawberry-studded cheesecake ($5) was so awful that it's since been taken off the menu.

Even barring such disasters, Michael's menu changes about once a month in order to keep flavors fresh and ingredients surprising. Next time they update their offerings, Carr and Shiell would do well to liven up the wine list, too. For such an eclectic place, the list, while decently priced, is far too safe.

A few blocks down the street from Michael's is Cafe Paradiso. Here, too, the menu changes about once a month, the decor is delightfully upscale and inviting, the staff busts butt to get the job done right, and the cooking style falls into the fusion category. You'd think the restaurants were related but for two things: At Cafe Paradiso the wine list is fun and the food falls flat.

This small eatery opened over a year ago in the space previously filled by a different Cafe Paradiso (the new owners decided to keep the name). Two couples--Chris Clark and husband Martin Stone, Stone's sister Melody and her husband, Donovan Cornish--and their dearest friend, Lance Clarose, had worked together in numerous restaurants across the country, including Beano's Cabin in Vail, before deciding to start their own. According to Clark, Cornish, the chef of the group, always had a liking for Asian cooking, and he had spent some time in Santa Fe. Put those two influences together with Italian, and you've got Cafe Paradiso's menu.

You've also got some problems, chief among them repetition. For instance, two of the three listed appetizers contained goat cheese; two of the nine entrees called for green-chile creme fraiche and two more for green chiles in other forms; two dishes featured risotto, and two some kind of pesto broth. Cafe Paradiso also serves a cumin vinaigrette, which made me wonder if they're buying it from Michael's.

The limited ingredients wouldn't be so problematic if they were put together in a way that made sense. The stuffed portabello mushroom ($5) appetizer, for example, supposedly contained grilled vegetables and goat cheese. We only knew about the vegetables because the menu mentioned them; from what we were able to taste, the stuffing could have been minced anything. Neither these tasteless bits nor the minuscule amount of goat cheese did anything for the large portabello except ruin it. Goat cheese was put to better use in the superb spinach strudel ($5) with red-pepper aioli and toasted pumpkin seeds, one of the three Cafe Paradiso dishes we tried that added up to something special. Another was the polenta with Alabama rock shrimp in a heady tomato cream sauce ($5); the third was the well-balanced tomato-basil-parmesan soup ($3.75) with toasted pine nuts. (A second soup, a vegetable with barley for the same price, tasted like it was water-based.)

Cafe Paradiso seems to do better with simpler, less-fused food. The Colorado buffalo tenderloin ($19.50), an exemplary cut served with green-chile creme fraiche-mashed potatoes and non-greasy baked onion rings, was more than satisfactory. But the two preparations of swordfish--there must have been a run on the fish that week--were barely passable. Both arrived as big bowls swimming with soupy starches, each with a piece of nicely grilled fish plopped down in the center. To the kitchen's credit, the version featuring penne pasta and lobster green-chile cream ($16.75) had lots of lobster pieces, but they were done in by the green chiles, and the pasta, while fine on its own, didn't work with the fish. The fish was the only thing that worked in a dish pairing swordfish with red curry risotto chile ($15.75). I don't know what red curry risotto chile is supposed to be, exactly, but this mess was so strong with chile powder that the whole thing tasted like a bad meal on a cattle drive. Slightly more appetizing was the grilled salmon on green-chile risotto with Alabama rock shrimp--apparently there was a big run on those, too--and spinach ($13.50), which brought another piece of fish smack-dab in the middle of watery risotto. (Cornish claims his risotto isn't creamy because he uses no butter or cream, but superfino Arborio rice cooked properly doesn't need either.) Neither the green chiles nor the shrimp nor the spinach did anything for the salmon.

Fusion? Confusion is more like it.
This could be a long year.

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