Do the 'Due
The liquor store in Naples was a pretty impressive comment on just how ignorantly the American public buys wine: One section was labeled "Chardonnay," another was called "Merlot," and then there was a sign pointing me in the direction of "Other Varietals." A member of the ABC -- Anything But Chardonnay -- generation, I went in that last direction, hoping for a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Italian Gavi di Gavi, a Spanish Viura Blanco, perhaps an Alsatian Riesling. New World or Old, I didn't care, as long as it wasn't tell-tale malolactic and oaked to death. But all I found was another signpost regarding our popular wine consumption: NBC. Nothin' But California.
Despite current patriotic attitudes, the general focus on California Chards and Merlots has nothing to do with anti-French sentiment and the desire to "buy domestic." Retail outlets tend to cater to what they assume the average wine-drinker will request, and so they ignore the opportunities to educate their clients about and expand their horizons. Restaurants fall into this trap as well, offering a predominant amount of West Coast wines that, value-for-moneywise, lose out to, say, South American vintages at the outset. Even those who have "wine bar" appellations don't seem to understand the bigger -- and better -- picture: If you put vino into the name equation, as does Fúsha Fondue & Wine, you will, as a matter of course, draw aficionados, including people who buy and sell wine for a living. At which point you must be able to back up your claim -- whether it's merely implied or otherwise.
Fúsha does a half-hearted job. I took a party of eight to this nine-month-old Delray Beach eatery, which is tucked into a corner of the revitalized Pineapple Grove section, figuring that with fondue, the more folks to wield skewers, the better. We immediately ordered two bottles, one each from different producers, of Sauvignon Blanc from the rather limited California-driven list. The server came back with the one bottle that was available, four white wine glasses, and one red wine glass and somehow managed to pour an entire bottle into three glasses. Rather than go into painful minutiae, allow me to just sum up: The servers don't know much about wine, nor can they appear to count and measure. But the problem is bigger than that. We were informed that being a small restaurant, Fúsha doesn't have the space to cellar much. So it stocks, at the most, only two bottles of each vintage -- "unless it's Chardonnay or Merlot, which people like to drink."
On the one hand, I sympathize with the staff and proprietor of Fúsha. The place is indeed rather tiny, with a total of maybe six interior tables and a smattering more in the courtyard outside. The bar has room for -- let me be generous here -- four. As for the wine list, I've seen worse. At least the quality is there, and when we finished the one or two bottles of a vintage that we enjoyed, the owner, an invisible presence from the back that the waitress would refer to as "he," offered us his more-expensive bottles for the same price we'd been paying.
However, given its self-designation, Fúsha owes both itself and its customers the following: Hire a sommelier, even if it's just on a consulting basis, and revamp. I'm not even talking about getting the cult or boutique wines in here, though certified sommeliers usually do have the contacts within the industry to accomplish just that. I'd be satisfied with an internationally drawn list of more exotic varietals that also offers a choice of sized bottles. Our party of eight, for instance, should have been able to order a magnum of something, at least so that everybody could have a taste of the vintage.
I'm harping on this point because I have a feeling that with the right constructive criticism, Fúsha could be Delray Beach's answers to the questions posed by South Beach's Tantra: Can a restaurant imply decadence without resorting to devices like live grass carpeting the foyer and an "aphrodisiacal" menu? Promote sexuality without late-night parties' turning into virtual orgies? Offer such personalized options as tableside fondue preparation and hookah-smoking without ripping you off? Yes, yes, and yes.
Indeed, this limited space has all the potential for being a coveted one. The artwork on the walls, ranging from framed pieces to murals, is vibrant and eclectic, done by locals who exhibit talent. The circular dining room offers tucked-away tables that you can make even cozier by drawing sheer, shower-curtain-size material. A large and colorful hookah, mouthpieces curled around it like cobras, perches on a low-slung table just inside the door. Driving dance music infused with world beats is just loud enough to be effective without limiting conversation, and sophisticated lighting allows you to see your food but at the same time casts intriguing shadows. In short, the seductive décor -- check out those luscious bathrooms -- is extremely effective.
As is, most important, the cuisine pairs ideally to this party-tinged environment. Fondue, which is all the restaurant offers, is a communal experience. Whether you choose to commune with just one other person or with a group, you have to go in knowing you'll participate in the cooking process and share with your dinner mates. Keepers of the plate -- those who guard their food with the zeal of stray dogs or ex-cons -- should stay away.
Basically, Fúsha has two prix-fixe menus, each priced for two diners. The first includes a cheese fondue course, an intermezzo salad, and then a meat fondue course that includes tidbits of boneless chicken breast, tiger shrimp, and New York strip. The second is identical, but filet mignon is added to the meat course. À la carte options -- chicken only, for instance -- are available upon request, or you can enjoy a successive series of cheese fondues (they serve two people at $14 each, with an extra charge of $4 per person). But the gamut is worth running, both gastronomically and economically.
Once you decide on the menu level, the compromises come into play, as does a bit of math. The tables generally have one burner in the center, which means that groups must agree on the choice of cheese fondues, which number eight: classic Swiss, classic cheddar, Baja, Southwestern tomatillo salsa, ginger curry, sun-dried tomato pizza, smoked cheddar and hard cider, and Caribbean habanero chili. All are prepared tableside with some sort of alcohol (12-steppers, step away), cheese, and various spices or flavorings. Fondues are accompanied by a smattering of raw broccoli, cauliflower, grapes, apple slices, sectioned green bell peppers, and chunks of bread, which diners spear and then dip in the cheese mixture.
We were a party big enough to warrant two tables put together, which means we had a pair of burners, and ordered the ginger curry and Southwestern tomatillo salsa fondues accordingly. The first, shredded cheddar cheese melted into lager, boasted a nice mild blend of curry and ginger flavors, underscored by a hint of mango. The second, a more-assertive pepper jack cheese, was enhanced by Mexican beer and tomatillo salsa. While we thought the servings a bit on the puny side -- the bread alone would have led Hansel and Gretel only about a third of the way into the forest -- we enjoyed the richness of the blends. Try not to dwell on the size, as freshly tossed field greens partnered with homemade Maytag blue cheese, Champagne vinaigrette, or raspberry vinaigrette are directly on the way.
Second verse, same as the first: The cooking method -- low sodium chicken broth; cholesterol-free canola oil with seasonings; or "the favorite," chicken broth with Burgundy, garlic, mushrooms, and assorted vegetables -- must be unanimously selected. We steered clear of the healthier choices, relying on the so-called French paradox (wine negates cholesterol) to keep us in shape, and went for "the favorite." Once the liquid is heated to a sufficient cooking temperature, the server brings out a triple tier of meats, fresh plates and fondue forks, and a timer, along with a little advice: Cook beef and shrimp for about 40 seconds, but make sure to use the three-minute timer for the chicken. Never put a "spork" in your mouth; put cooked food first on your plate to cut back on both burns and germs. And be generous with the sauces: mango barbecue for the chicken, béarnaise and Chantilly for the meats, stone crab and cocktail for the shrimp.
We found everything from meat to condiment to be high in quality and flavor. Some of us quibbled over quantity, but Fúsha isn't a steak house. Don't expect to walk away overstuffed as a potato. If you're still hungry after the main course (there are no starchy side dishes, FYI), salivate over the desserts, all of which are fondues -- Amaretto dream, coconut rum, chocolate mint, caramel apple -- served with strawberries, grapes, succulent angel food cake, and the gooiest brownies, topped with marshmallows, that I've had in quite a while. We adored the espresso double chocolate fondue, which contained the perfect touch of bitterness, but found the white chocolate-raspberry swirl concoction to be a little on the thick side.
A puff or two on the hookah caps the evening, even if you're not a smoker -- the fruit-laced tobaccos are so mild you don't even feel a burning in your lungs. Of course, that disappointed one member of my party, who insisted on calling the server packing and lighting the hookah "Spicoli" and wanted to know where Fúsha was keeping the "real stuff." To that end, at least, I would imagine that no one would mind assessing the best that California has to offer.
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