by Susan Hamilton

It's all the rage in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Trendy restaurants with attitude are serving up fusion cuisine. Chic patrons dine on lobster "margarita" cocktails of the succulent crustacean marinated in a cilantro vinaigrette served on a pillow of tequila- and citrus-flavored cr & egrave;me fraiche and mayonnaise in a martini glass whose rim is coated with sea salt and sugar. Sophisticated diners enjoy roast duck with a jalapeno pepper sauce, sea scallop Wellington with a scallion cream sauce or grilled sirloin topped with oysters tempura and crispy leeks.

So what, exactly, is fusion cuisine? Fusion cooking uses techniques, ingredients and seasonings from Asian and Western cuisines in a single dish. European ingredients may be cut up and cooked using a Chinese method, such as steaming or stir frying, and seasoned with Southeast Asian spices or herbs. Fusion cooking reflects the growing trend for meals that are light, satisfying and alive with contrasting flavors and textures, often topped with flavorful sauces.

It began, as many fads do, in California. Growing out of the Asian-influenced West Coast, Pacific Rim cuisine celebrated the 1980s with the best of all worlds. New flavors and combinations, including shitake mushrooms, basmati rice, sashimi-style tuna, stir frying instead of grilling and the accents of Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and other Oriental cuisines predominated.

As fusion cuisine evolved, chefs blended flavors from various cuisines (including India, Mexico and South America) to create dishes that were unique, subtle, spicy and exotic. The arresting combinations and unusual tastes gave diners diverse and vibrant choices. With such bold ingredients, fusion cuisine also relied on subtle effects. Pianissimo cooking allowed the natural flavors of meats and vegetables to shine through so that there were no wrong notes.

"For a fusion cuisine dish to be successful, the cook has to truly understand the ingredients, tastes and textures and how heat affects them," says German-born Executive Chef Rainer Zinnegrebe of Kuala Lumpur's trendy Pacifica Grill in an article in Malaysian Business magazine. "Creating new trans-ethnic dishes is actually treading on delicate ground, as it means marrying ingredients never matched before. While they are fused, each should be identifiable."

It seems fitting that fusion cuisine was born in America, the country known as the melting pot of cultures. This new cooking style also represents freedom and a break with traditional ways. The chef can be free to experiment along cross-cultural lines. And American chefs, much like their scientific counterparts, like to be remembered for their highly inventive works.

So what are the rules of the road for fusion cooking? First and foremost is the substitution of an ingredient from one culture into the dish of another culture. Fusion cooks use Japanese wasabi with European-style braised beef rather than horseradish. Another standard is to introduce the unexpected, like Asian crab cannelloni. Techniques from one cuisine can be used to prepare a dish from a totally different culture. The classic French saut & eacute; method can be used to prepare Asian vegetables with a Chinese red-pepper paste sauce. Creativity without boundaries is another rule followed in fusion cooking. Lemon grass-kaffir lime-marinated salmon served on Japanese buckwheat noodles harmoniously marries the flavors of East and West.

"Fusion cuisine is not as well represented here [in the Inland Northwest] as in other cities," says Chef-Instructor Doug Fisher of Spokane Community College's Culinary Arts Program. "Technically speaking, a lot of fusion is going on, but it's not always fusion per se." Fisher thinks this is probably because diners tend to be less adventurous here, and the area doesn't have a large international community.

"Over time, our young chefs will experiment and educate the population," Fisher adds.

One up-and-coming chef, Ian Wingate, has made a name for himself in the Inland Northwest with his innovative creations at the former Moxie in Liberty Lake and the Sand Creek Grill in Sandpoint.

"My background is fusion, predominately Asian-influenced Hawaiian with French," Wingate tells me. "Off-the-wall things can work, but when pairing different cuisines, it's best not to have too much going on."

At the new Palm Court Restaurant in the Davenport Hotel, set to open in June, Wingate will be using fusion cooking with lots of Asian flavors and French techniques. Some of the dishes that will star on the menu include a live sea urchin appetizer with champagne beurre blanc sauce. Wingate will also feature a house-smoked spring roll with fromage blanc. For a sneak peek, check out his black-and-blue yellowfin tuna, which is featured on the front page of this section. It also comes with an avacado-asparagus salad, matchstick potatoes, Dijon mustard-soy sauce, tobiko caviar and black truffles.

Diners at the Palm Court will be able to watch things sizzle in the display-cook area that's viewable from the dining room. One of those dishes is a seared Catalina Island scallop dish with red-pepper vinaigrette.

Another young chef, James Malone, likes to use simple techniques with exotic ingredients to bring out flavors in the dishes he creates at his Solstice Restaurant (formerly Moxie) in Liberty Lake. "People have been pleasantly surprised that we've been able to keep up the reputation established by Ian Wingate at Moxie," he explains.

As far as fusion cuisine, Malone says he thinks that's where contemporary chefs are going, especially with exotic ingredients more readily available. "Any good chef wants to be someone who invents something new and exciting," he says.

Malone's new spring menu includes such fusion cuisine items as tiger prawns saut & eacute;ed with vegetables and a spicy yuzu garlic sauce and tossed with yakisoba noodles. Another new spring dish at Solstice is a roasted citric-pepper crusted chicken breast served over fresh basil pasta tossed with a rich pesto and covered with a zesty tomatillo salsa.

Fugazzi's Executive Chef Tom Schultz brings Korean influences to his cooking style. When asked what makes good fusion food, he says it's "the ability to meld flavors in a way that is appealing to the palate as well as the eye." Schultz prefers to keep his cooking light, with blanching or searing to let natural flavors predominate.

Schultz is using more fusion cuisine for his spring and summer menu. He features a roasted duck breast over rice vermicelli with a miso broth for a fusion dish. He has also offered a seared tenderloin carpaccio marinated in soy ginger and star anise for wine tastings at Fugazzi. Continuing the Thai influence brought to Fugazzi by former Executive Chef Chet Geryl, Schultz will present pan-seared Ahi over a bed of sweet Thai rice with hot and sour murin fume.

At his Hayden Lake restaurant, Everett's on the Lake, Chef Everett Fees draws on his 30 years of experience at such prestigious area restaurants as Patsy Clark's, Beverly's and the Clark House.

"With my small restaurant, I can do what I want, and I don't have to provide a single, regional fare," he says. "I don't want to lock myself into a specific cuisine at Everett's."

Fees's menu items change weekly and feature American, Mexican, Thai and Chinese fare. Dishes such as Thai duck pasta, filo-stuffed shitake mushrooms, sauteed scallops with Thai peanut sauce and steamed clams with red-curry sauce can be found at the eclectic restaurant.

Fees learned to use classic French methods with Asian food from the famed Wolfgang Puck in the '80s. "The fusion concept keeps me and my staff from being bored," Fees reveals.

Fusion cuisine can also be found at the members-only Spokane Club. Executive Chef Ray Delfino features Coquille Saint Jacques with an Italian flavor, cedar plank salmon with a cherry chutney sauce and Ahi tuna with a fruit salsa on the menu.

"Fusion cuisine is chemistry with food," Delfino says. "It's what chefs are all about."

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