Fusion — the culinary kind, not nuclear — is exploding in Leawood these days. The bustling stretch of 135th Street between Roe and Metcalf has a Bo Lings and a Tannahs, both of which serve a variety of dishes inspired by Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and other culinary traditions. And since November, chef-owner Jason Pi's Blue Fin Asian Fusion has joined the competition, serving a style of cooking that could best be described as a crazy quilt of cultures. Some of them, I fear, shouldn't have been fused.
Take, for example, a starter called Chinese spinach dip. I'll confess that I couldn't bring myself to order it because the description — spinach and mozzarella cheese mixed in hollandaise sauce — sounded awful. And what makes it "Chinese"? Well, it's served with crispy wontons.
One might expect to find sushi on an Asian fusion menu, but Pi doesn't serve it, despite the fact that he's an expert sushi maker. He's also a wizard at creating handmade noodles. He happily shows off, on a camera that he carries around, a video of his noodle-making prowess.
"It's a great video," said my friend Linda, who watched it on Pi's camera the night that I dined with her and her husband, Richard. "They should be playing this on the TV over the bar instead of the sports channel. This video makes you want to order a noodle dish!"
We did order one of those dishes, based on the images of Pi stretching and rolling the noodle dough. But it took us awhile to figure out how to order it. When customers are seated in the Blue Fin dining room (which still looks much as it did when the short-lived Mandarinism occupied the space two years ago), most are handed the regular menu. But Pi's noodles are on the Chinese menu.
I probably wouldn't have known about this menu if the server, a former Marine and massage therapist named Mark, hadn't decided that Linda, Richard and I seemed adventurous enough to order items from what he called "the big kids' menu."
There's nothing like Chinese spinach dip on that menu, or fried calamari or the hot braised chicken wings. It's a long list of classics, including cold jelly fish, sour cabbage and blood cake, and spicy pork intestine hotpot. There's some overlap between the two menus, but Linda and Richard, who have traveled in China, were much more interested in the "big kids' menu" than the fusion-happy one designed for the non-Asians.
Pi, who was born in Korea to Chinese parents, suggested that we start with a spicy noodle soup loaded with mussels, scallops, shrimp and peppers. I love fiery fare, but this was so kick-ass hot that after the first mouthful, I almost fell off my chair while grabbing for my water glass. It's a big kid's soup, all right. The soft, ropy noodles were wonderful, but the spicy broth made it almost too difficult to enjoy them.
"In this case," Richard said as he put down his spoon, "it may actually be a byproduct of nuclear fusion."
We were much happier with the Shandong-style cold chicken: chilled roasted chicken, with a dark-mahogany glaze, that was roughly chopped into small pieces and tossed on a plate with slices of ice-cold cucumber. It was vastly superior to a starter from the other menu called Duck Happy Buns.
I'm always happy to bite into a bun, you know, but the dish didn't come close to matching the menu description: "Peking duck, cucumber and green onions stuffed into two steamed buns served with a side of hoisin sauce." What actually arrived were four gummy (I suspect day-old) steamed buns on a plate with six small slices of chewy duck; the hoisin sauce came 30 minutes later.
Timing in the kitchen is one of the big problems at Blue Fin. On both of my visits, things came out too early, too late or not at all. I can't help but wonder whether chef Pi should be focusing more on those issues than showing off the performance on his video camera.
We loved the spicy salt-and-pepper shrimp, with crustaceans so big that Richard wondered whether they'd been netted on the set of Avatar. The tofu hotpot, beautifully presented in a metal chafing dish over a robust flame, was bubbling and fragrant but again too spicy. And the tofu was chopped into minuscule pieces, making it almost impossible to enjoy. "I'd like it a lot more without all the slimy stuff in it," Richard joked.
Korean-style barbecued short ribs were wonderfully tasty, but the thin-sliced beef was a shade on the chewy side.
"It's a fun place," Linda said. "The food's fair, but the waiter was handsome, so that made up for a lot."
My friend Melissa had the same reaction on another visit to Blue Fin, where we were joined by Truman and Bob. Melissa batted her eyes at Mark while Bob poured himself way too many thimble cups of warm sake, and Truman's Southern accent got more outrageously sugary with each sip of Grand Marnier. "Dahling, I just love this little ol' place," Truman drawled as he plucked a pork chive dumpling out of a bowl. "It's a fusion of Southern food and Chinese, don't you know."
Southern? "Look here," he said. "They've got a lemongrass pork chop. That's a combination of Mandarin and Mobile, Alabama!"
Well, it was a good chop, juicy and glazed a deep amber in a delicately sweet sauce that was fragrant with lemongrass.
After pondering whether to order a dish called Hawaii Five-O (a chicken breast stir-fried with pineapple and peppers and served in a pineapple shell), Bob ordered a Chinese-American standard: tempura-battered chicken in a tart lemon sauce. He loved it.
Melissa and I shared a plate of Thai basil chicken, which probably needed a little more fresh basil and a little less ginger, although the presentation was beautiful and it was tasty enough. "The sake makes it taste even better," she told me with a wink.
Problem was, our bowls of rice had arrived at the table a good 40 minutes before the dinners were served. Server Mark explained this: "The kitchen's very small. Sometimes it's good just to bring things out."
"You tell 'em, baby!" Truman said. "There's nothing worse than a dinky kitchen."
I sipped hot tea and finished off a few of the excellent braised chicken wings, seared in an addictive chili glaze with jalapeños and garlic.
"I'm telling you, that's how they make those ol' wings in the South!" Truman said, growing embarrassingly loud. "This place is a fusion of Asian and soul food!"
I don't know about that, but the name Blue Fin sure sounds like it could be a fish shack on some Florida beach somewhere. (A fish with a big blue fin is mounted on the wall.) Pi chose the name because he didn't want one of those restaurant names with Palace, Garden, Jade or Dragon in it. "This restaurant is very different," he said.
Ain't that the truth.