Brace yourself, I'm about to use the F word. That would be “fusion.”
Alright, maybe that's not such a big deal to you, but in certain restaurant circles fusion is one provocative term. It brings food memory flash backs to the days of sesame crusted everything, of the indiscriminate use of plum sauce and of milky green wasabi mashed potatoes.
Those trends are behind us, but fusion is still alive and well as chefs combine elements from one cuisine with another to create different dishes, even though it tends to go by different terms these days. “Mash-up” is a popular one, maybe because it’s so active and disrupty sounding. Mash up makes a better hashtag.
But whatever we call it, this mash up-fusion-combination cooking thing has been on my mind a lot lately, thanks to a few new New Orleans restaurants that keep drawing me back.
One is Maypop, the upscale CBD restaurant in the sleek new Paramount Building. The other is Marjie's Grill, a much more downscale venture set in the mid-century clutter of South Broad Street in Mid-City.
At Maypop, the kitchen’s intention is made clear by a clever, accordion-like mural stretching across the dining room. Look at it from different angles and it blends the Mississippi and Mekong river deltas. But a fuller measure of Maypop is found between the folds. What emerges is not just a kitchen mixing flavors of Louisiana and Southeast Asia, but rather a modern New Orleans restaurant that is ambitious, affable and bent on forging original cuisine.
Maypop can present elegant compositions like a wreath of cured red snapper, or brawnier dishes like squid ink bucatini noodles tangled around oysters and glittered by a breadcrumbs flickering with citrus and chile spice. Miso and blue cheese encrust the brisket. The weekend brunch menu is all dim sum, with headcheese soup dumplings and bacon scallion pancakes with kimchi oysters.
Back in Mid-City, at Marjie’s Grill the easy read is again South meets Southeast Asia. One recent dinner started with cornbread turned into shrimp toast and grilled okra with a briny, dried shrimp vinaigrette. The main act was a craggily, charred platter of charcoal-cooked pork to wrap in herbs and greens and dunk in fresh bundles into chili-garlic sauce. The meal ended with pecan pie.
You find a similar approach at lunch, when Marjie’s Grill serves what look like meat-and-three style plates of fried catfish or smothered chicken traced with chiles and garlic, the crunch of raw vegetables and the cool of torn herbs.
But calling this fusion feels like a cop out. Rather, Marjie’s Grill tastes like Southern cooking that recognizes lemongrass, fish sauce and Thai basil as newer contributions to what constitutes the South.
Marjie’s Grill and Maypop hold down different spots on the casual to upscale restaurant spectrum, but they share something that I really like, and that’s a sense that they belong, not just to this place but to this time. They feel at home in New Orleans right now, as the region recognizes that global flavors are part of the modern South’s identity and, fortunately for us, part of its culinary vocabulary. To me, that doesn’t feel like fusion. It feels like a reflection.
320 S. Broad St., 504-603-2234; marjiesgrill.com
Lunch Mon.-Fri., dinner Mon.-Sat.
611 O’Keefe Ave., 504-518-6345; maypoprestaurant.com
Lunch and dinner daily
Dim sum brunch Sat. and Sun. 11 a.m.-3 p.m.