Mother and daughter owners Marilyn and Sebrina Love bring the foods from their native New York. Growing up in Harlem, Marilyn was exposed to the melting pot cuisines--Italian, Polish, Chinese, Jewish, African-American, Puerto Rican, West Indian and Cuban. Their idea of everyday comfort food may be exotic to Tucsonans.
But first a word about the ambience: It rocks! Sexy and intimate, the room radiates a cross between bordello and bazaar. Luis Barragán Mexican blue paint splashes across the ceiling and walls. Tables and chairs are gilded gold with faux animal print upholstery and gauzy tablecloths. Western and Caribbean art share wall space. Blue gauzy curtains and blue rope lights frame windows. Strings of white lights crisscross over the ceiling, Las Vegas-style, complete with a dazzling crystal chandelier. Unobtrusive light jazz can be heard in the background. An overstuffed velvet couch invites seduction. You can visualize the bewitching Joan Collins during her Dynasty days or international songstress Shakira reclining languidly across the couch, mouthing, "Peel me a grape."
Sebrina Love is not afraid to reveal the many layers of her personality in the vivid décor. The designing daughter and catering-savvy mother both mix it up in the kitchen. The menu is a veritable geography lesson and herein lies the conundrum. With Asian vegetable stir fry, beef Wellington, stuffed chicken cutlet Parmesan, three bean chili and fry bread, Southern fried chicken, kielbasa and Spanish pork stew all present, one wonders: What the house specialty is and how does everything taste? Eating globally locally has yet to be embraced as a Tucson tradition.
For starters, we ordered three appetizers. Cajun angels ($8.75), five large shrimp wrapped in bacon, were too salty for our tastes. I frequently find Cajun seasoning too salty, but it depends on your salt quotient. Savory Jamaican meat patties ($7.75) in a flaky pastry crust proved deeply satisfying although a spiked mustard, chili or peppery dipping sauce would have elevated our enjoyment. A platter of thinly sliced fried green tomatoes ($4.75)--once considered poor-folk food but now a Southern delicacy made famous by the Whistle Stop Café--were dipped in batter and cornmeal. Although a generous portion, they disappeared off the plate. Appetizers were adorned with upscale lettuces, bits of red pepper and sliced tomatoes. Other appetizers ($4.75-7.75) included a trio of crepes, clam stuffed mushrooms, Italian hot wings, vegetable kabobs and miniature Swedish meatballs in gravy.
Served family-style in a pretty scalloped glass bowl with silver tongs, gourmet greens mingled with tasty tomatoes and cucumber slices. The house dressing--a marriage of blue cheese and Italian vinaigrette--provided a light but flavorful option. Instead of the usual basket of bread, fluffy pumpkin bread squares and warm maple butter almost seemed like dessert.
Our entrees included Cajun jambalaya and rice served in a bread bowl ($12.75), a Cuban sandwich with black beans and rice ($9.75) and Puerto Rican chicken rice and beans with fried plantains ($10.75). The lack of island food in Tucson is certainly noticed by me, so I was excited to see it on the menu.
Bursting with robustness, the jambalaya was about flavor instead of searing hotness. Generous with clams, chicken and sausage, it had less broth and more density than we remembered. Between the rice and the bread bowl, there were a whole lot of carbohydrates going on.
Grilled on an eight-inch French roll, the Cuban sandwich--slathered in neon yellow mustard and piled with two kinds of cheese, roast pork, ham and sweet pickles--demonstrated ampleness enough for two people. Marinated in a fusion of Puerto Rican and Cuban spices, Marilyn roasts the pork for three hours. Cubans often eat these sandwiches at sidewalk cafes after a night of dancing and merrymaking. Served with spicy rice and black beans mixed together, it's a meal that's such a deal.
The Puerto Rican chicken rice and beans proved to be my least favorite. Served in a fried shell, it tasted better than a tostada shell, but still a shell omitted from the menu description. More rice and beans prevailed than chicken and being in a shell reminded me of a Mexican dish instead of an island dish. However, the side of sugary fried plantains (Latin American bananas) vibrated pure nirvana.
I can't help but think that in the restaurant business, location is everything and Fusing Cultures would better find its target appetites closer to the University and eclectic Fourth Avenue, where the urban groove is more deeply appreciated. As for the supper club part, live Latin jazz and rhythm and blues is planned for the future. By personal choice, alcoholic beverages are not offered, but non-alcoholic specialty drinks like sangria and flavored daiquiris are. The less dramatic lunch menu features a few appetizers, stuffed breads with savory fillings, salads, sandwiches and of course, desserts.
We passed on sweet potato pie, peach cobbler and a Kahlua brownie for a dessert. The Venetian ($5.50) was a green, yellow and pink almond-flavored layered cake glazed with chocolate syrup, served warm and sandwiched between two cozy scoops of vanilla ice cream, then topped with multi-colored sprinkles. It was a party on a plate. Grazie.