Zi Fusion -- briefly Zi Cuisine -- opens in Englewood

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When Ricky and Anna Choi first announced plans to take over the former Maxwell's space at 7340 South Clinton Street, they intended to call it Zi Cuisine, which, as we all know, is precariously close in spelling to Z Cuisine, Patrick DuPays's remarkable French restaurant at 2239 West 30th Avenue. And the pronunciation? Exactly the same.

Still, when the Chois opened their dining den on October 4 (they hosted a grand-opening party on Saturday), the signage, website and menu carried the Zi Cuisine name, and that, not surprisingly, led to mass confusion -- and a new name. Zi Cuisine is now Z Fusion, which, says executive chef Rhett Songer, more accurately personifies the concept. "We changed the name because of the confusion, but more important, we wanted to let people know who we really are -- and what we really are is a fusion restaurant."

If you require proof, Anna is Chinese, her husband, Ricky, is from Hong Kong, the sushi chef, Louis De La Cruz, is from Mexico, and Songer, who's American, has spent the last several years delving into French-Mediterranean, Japanese, Spanish and Italian cooking. "We're definitely fusion," declares Songer, but he insists that fusion -- the "f" word of the culinary world -- doesn't have to mean a clusterfuck of abused dishes tortured by some guy in the kitchen who has no concept of restraint.

"One of the reasons why fusion cuisine has a bad name is because people would throw anything and everything out there and then call it fusion, and diners didn't know what to make of it," says Songer. "A lot of the problem stems from the fact that fusion restaurants aren't all that accessible, and that's where we differ: We're offering an accessible menu that draws from different regions, but the dishes make sense."

And now that we've seen the board, we're kinda excited by what Songer and his crew are doing. Mussels steamed in rice wine and pumped up North Vietnamese style with green curry sound pretty damn good. Coconut milk and roasted pumpkin soup. A New York strip crusted with togarashi, served with roasted shiitake mushrooms, celeriac mashed potatoes and eel sauce. What's not to love about eel sauce? Or seared scallops with sweet-potato dumplings floating in a sake-cilantro broth with flying fish roe? Songer says he's not remotely scared off by the naysayers who roll their eyes at the mere mention of anything fusion, and I like that attitude.

The menu also plays around with sushi rolls, the descriptions of which, at least on paper, don't seem to stray far from the usual suspects, but Songer says that they, too, have twists. "Louis, our sushi chef, worked at Sushi Den and Sushi Sasa, and he does beautiful, really artistic work. His rolls are very different versions from what you'll find at other sushi restaurants, plus he makes his own sauces."

And Songer, who runs a kitchen committed to fresh, seasonal, oft-changing ingredients, will offer his own nightly prix fixe menu: four courses of off-menu dishes that he'll roll out in early November. "Everything on the prix fixe menu will be specials, and while I'll do some stuff that's out there, like everything else on my regular menu, the dishes will be accessible to everyone."

Except for perhaps the Playboy roll, at least until it has a female counterpart.

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