Small Plates, Surreal Service

Tapas Fusion's ambition is admirable, but that's not enough to cover up a number of missteps

If there are two words in the modern-day culinary lexicon that are misused more than tapas and fusion, I don't know what they are. Tapas, to me, refers to all those wonderful small plates found at Spanish—and only Spanish—restaurants. Everything else is an appetizer. And fusion means the true blending of two or more cuisines into one dish. It's not putting a Greek salad next to an enchilada.

So the name of this midtown restaurant is a bit disconcerting. Certainly, they could've come up with something more lyrical.

Tucked behind several popular restaurants, this venue is a little hard to spot. Add to that the fact that when we pulled into the parking lot, the darkened lighting inside made it seem like the restaurant was closed.

The menu here is quite ambitious, with choices from around the world (hence "World Food" in the name). But having so many choices can get in the way of tasteful and focused execution.

One side of the menu contains two sections: tapitas and tapas. The other side, literally listed as "Side Two," is divided into flat breads, salads, soups, risotto and a couple of specials (drinks and desserts, too).

From the tapitas selection, we chose the piquillos rellenos ($9), the papita rellenos ($3, the happy hour price when ordering a cocktail; $6 otherwise), the tamales ($5) and hummus ($5). We also had a pisco sour ($6).

From the tapas offerings, we ordered pinchos ($16), tortillitas de gambas ($9) and the gambas al ajillo ($13 with bread; $16 with fettuccini). From Side Two, we opted for the pollo al spiedo ($8 for a quarter-chicken; $13 for half; $18 whole). The tapas portions were more like entrée-size dishes.

On our first visit we were served yucca fries as what could be called an amuse bouche. They were an interesting start, although a bit bland.

But the piquillos were wonderful. Three small, sweet red peppers had been stuffed with a smidgen of shrimp and a delicious goat cheese that was all melty and warm. I could've eaten a dozen of them. A spoonful of tapenade, which the server called chimmichuri sauce, decorated the plate. It, too, was quite good.

We weren't so lucky with other plates, though. The mashed-potatoes dough of the papita rellenos was nicely done, but the filling of finely chopped beef, olives and onions had an odd flavor. And both the masa and the Peruvian pork filling of the tamales (there was actually only one) were dry. The hummus came in a teeny portion with teeny tomatoes on top. It was served with what was called crostini (which appeared to be store-bought teeny toasts) and orange slices. Missing was that pop of garlic and swirl of olive oil that make hummus so wonderful.

A word about the service: There needs to be some training here. One night, the server seemed on top of his game. He checked on us regularly. He could describe the dishes, and he asked if we wanted all our food at once or the tapitas first. But the rest of the service was almost surreal. One server didn't know the names of menu items. On our first visit, we were served one tapita, then one tapa, then another tapita followed by another tapa. Why have separate menu sections if you're going to serve food that way? Then there was the greeter/busser who handed us the menus as we walked in the door and didn't bother to seat us. Restaurant owners often ignore these details, usually to the detriment of everyone involved.

The tapas sounded great on paper, but the real thing didn't quite match the descriptions.

Our favorite was the tortillitas de gambas. They were crispy and light, but the promised shrimp was a bit lost among all the other ingredients.

The menu promised beef, shrimp, tilapia and scallops on the skewers of the pinchos. Although everything was nicely grilled and seasoned, there was only one shrimp, one piece of tilapia and one scallop. The fried-potato cubes served with it were a nice complement.

The gambas al ajillo is a dish that should sing with the flavors of garlic and butter, but the shrimp was bland. The fettuccini was in reality linguini, and it was overcooked.

The skin on the pollo al spiedo was truly crispy and full of all manner of seasonings. But most of the breast (with the quarter, you have a choice of white or dark meat) skin was missing. Who knows what happened to it? We opted for sweet potato fries ($1) instead of the regular fries. They were enjoyable. There was also a duo of creamy sauces: a yellow pepper sauce and a cilantro sauce, both nicely presented and quite tasty.

The pisco sour fell short. But perhaps that was because although there is a bar, there is no bartender. The servers have to make the drinks.

For dessert, the picarones ($5) were heavenly. They were described as butter-squash and sweet-potato beignets and were served with a house-made syrup. They were hot out of the fryer and light and airy. But as for the flavors of butter squash and sweet potato, well, they just weren't there. The Napoleons, or mil hojas, ($5) had flaky layers of crisp dough. They were tasty, but could have used more of the caramel filling.

Tapas Fusion is one of those places I really wanted to like. But a lack of focus makes that hard to do.

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