UNLIKE nouvelle cuisine, fusion cuisine never developed a theory. This may be because it is not so much an idea as a fact, a practical response to a global market and an increasingly global popular culture. Classically trained chefs, by one route or another, found their way to new ingredients and flavors, and they did exactly what chefs did when confronted with the tomato a few centuries ago. They sniffed warily, began to experiment and then changed the way the world eats, forever. As a movement, fusion fizzled. No one even uses the word any more. But as a fact of life, it is here to stay.
Nowhere has it put down stronger roots than at Jefferson. The name is patriotic. The cuisine is billed as New American. It takes about three seconds after getting the menu to realize that the chef and owner, Simpson Wong, is staging a kind of provocation. The America he has in mind is a diverse, equal-opportunity culture that thrives on immigrant energies. It's the America we live in now, and in culinary terms, that means ravioli made from edamame, with ginkgo nuts and mascarpone cheese, or scallops crusted in rice shavings and dressed with a white miso tangerine sauce.
Mr. Wong, who is also the chef and owner of Cafe Asean on the same block of West 10th Street, does not force the fusion issue. It's simply the way he thinks. He is a Malaysian of Chinese descent, and his résumé is, to put it mildly, unusual. He learned his way around a kitchen by helping his mother prepare meals out in the rain forest for the workers in his father's timber company. He worked as a banker in Kuala Lumpur and as a shiatsu masseur in New York. In 1996 he opened Cafe Asean, a showcase for Thai, Vietnamese and Malaysian dishes, and a local favorite.
With Jefferson, Mr. Wong takes a bold step forward. He's working on a bigger stage, for one thing, a large, airy dining room with a spare modern design. He's also working in a more daring style.
Nothing, and I mean nothing, is alien to Mr. Wong. In a more subdued mood, he might put a gentle spin on fairly traditional dishes, creating an Asian surf-and-turf appetizer of tuna tartare and slices of seared duck breast in a light, piquant yuzu vinaigrette. Lamb chops, a conservative standby on any menu, are treated mildly at Jefferson, with a spicy crust and mint sauce made from aromatic shiso. Even unreconstructed steakhouse diners would probably notice nothing amiss.
The lamb is excellent. So is the surf and turf. But Mr. Wong comes into his own with go-for-broke dishes like snapper with caramelized persimmon, baby leeks and enoki mushrooms, a subtle interweaving of sweet, earthy and bitter flavors enhanced by an improbable-sounding coconut-candlenut foam. Chunks of firm but unctuous candlenut provide a pleasing textural contrast to this unusual dish, which sounds outlandish but proves itself on the plate. The slightly astringent, chewy gobo root, also known as burdock root, makes a brilliant partner for sweetly bland chestnuts in a cool-weather, multicultural bistro dish, braised pork shank. Another venture into surf and turf, this time more adventurous, pairs grilled toro, or belly tuna, with foie gras. This gilt-edged combination comes with a fairly traditional condiment, roasted quince, and a lively sweet-hot sauce made of honey and sansho peppercorns.
Even at his most experimental, Mr. Wong shows good taste and restraint. He has a refined palate, and he pays close attention to texture and the interplay of unusual flavors. Asian pear brings an unexpected, pleasing burst of sweetness to an appetizer of yellowtail sashimi that gets some clever Italian tailoring, with preserved lemon and capers in a fruity olive oil. Reversing the order, Mr. Wong starts with an Italian ingredient, the branzino, or Mediterranean sea bass, surrounds it with homey old friends like fennel and artichokes, and then springs a surprise, a Thai-inspired lobster broth accented with lemon grass. Venison carpaccio, invitingly brick-red, also benefits from the Thai treatment, a light anointing with a dressing of Thai basil and rosemary. One vegetarian dish deserves praise, a robust plate of sautéed shimeji mushrooms with butternut squash, shisito peppers and truffle-accented gnocchi made from fennel and taro root.
Jacqueline Zion, Jefferson's pastry chef, does not try to trump Mr. Wong's menu. Wisely, she opts for less rather than more, picking up some of the main themes but expressing them simply.
A fragrant panna cotta flavored with chrysanthemum reflects her style, an unadorned disk of custard surrounded by a pear compote with a hint of lemon. Pot stickers, stuffed with Fuji apple and goat cheese, are clever, with a light caramel sauce that adds sweetness without burying the little dumplings in sweet lava. The closest thing to an all-out pleasure assault on the dessert menu is a fairly winsome banana pudding with bittersweet chocolate rum sauce, pure bliss in a compact format, with macadamia ice cream thrown in for good measure.
Jefferson does noble work. In a small way, it expands the known culinary universe. At a time when restaurants all over town are simplifying and, in many cases, dumbing down, Jefferson has smartened up. Like its namesake, it has faith in the people, and in itself. That makes it a good American, in my book.
[Rating: two stars]
121 West 10th Street (Greenwich Avenue), Greenwich Village; (212) 255-3333.
ATMOSPHERE Inventive American-Asian cuisine served in a spacious dining room with a subdued modern décor.
SOUND LEVEL Medium.
RECOMMENDED DISHES Yellowtail sashimi with Asian pear; tuna tartare and seared duck breast; sautéed shimeji mushrooms with butternut squash; red snapper with caramelized persimmon; spice-crusted lamb chop with shiso mint sauce; Fuji apple and goat cheese pot stickers; banana bread pudding with bittersweet chocolate rum sauce.
SERVICE Occasionally confused at check-in. The well-informed, agreeable waiters can be overwhelmed when the room fills.
WINE LIST A tidy, sensible choice of 30 international wines, with a half-dozen wines by the glass.
HOURS Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5:30 to 11:30 p.m. Closed Sunday.
PRICE RANGE Appetizers, $9 to $19; entrees, $20 to $28; desserts, $7 to $9.
CREDIT CARDS All major cards.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS Dining room is on street level, restroom on dining level.
What the stars mean:
(None) Poor to Satisfactory
** Very Good
Ratings reflect the reviewer's reaction to food, ambiance and service with price taken into consideration. Menu listings and prices are subject to change.
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