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Cultural Crossings 

Asian Fusion in Ballantyne

Fusion as a culinary term should be buried alongside crispy, the popular 1990 menu euphemism for fried. What is gastronomic fusion? A creative union of disparate foods? But then what cuisine has not blatantly copied or borrowed from another cuisine? All food dishes are, in a sense, a fusion, unless they are raw.

Asian cuisines, one of those umbrella terms which encompass colossal geography and a significant portion of the world's population pie, are no exception to fusion. Vietnamese cuisine borrowed heavily from the French during that colonial period. And the chilies in Indian Vindaloo? Those peppers are from this side of the world and were taken to India by European traders.

The one aspect that Asian cuisines have in common, though, is the balance of flavors in each dish. Asian chefs bring a harmony of food to the plate. Asian cuisine is known not for the fusion of flavor, but a harmony of flavors.

Currently U.S. palates are in love with anything Asian, and Chinese food has evolved a long way from eating by the numbers: combo number five. But the term Asian Fusion seems ill-omened. Can good be created by flavor chaos?

With this in mind, I head south towards Ballantyne to the 88-seat Jade Asian Fusion and Sushi Bar, which opened in November 2006. I discover, however, restaurateur and chef John Chen approaches Asian fusion pragmatically. At Jade, the lengthy menu is fused, not the dishes. In other words, Jade takes the diner on a quick trip to popular Asian culinary haunts and not to a potential train wreak on a plate.

Chen, a native of Hong Kong, grew up learning the restaurant business in his parents' kitchen at the Manchu Wok in the SouthPark Mall, which his family owned for 14 years but recently sold. The senior Chens currently own Chen's Bistro in the University area. John Chen first tried his hand as a restaurateur as co-owner at Fujo (301 S. College St., in Wachovia). This restaurant offers a combination of Chinese and Japanese dishes. Then Chen briefly spun off Koi Sushi in Cotswold. But Jade is the kind of Asian restaurant Chen has thought Charlotte should have. Chen, Jade's Executive Chef, designed the menu after visiting Asian fusion restaurants in L.A. and New York. Peter Wang, also a native of China, is Jade's Itamae (sushi chef).

Jade is colored in clean lines of black and green and has that polished feel. What is noticeably different are the non-Asian servers with a kind of hip insouciance. What's noticeably the same is the non-adventurous wine list. Hey, if you're going to fool around with food, create a bold drink list, too.

Jade's straightforward appetizers come quickly and hold their own. The flash fried soft shell crab, a finger-licking triumph and a must-have whenever you find a chef from Hong Kong, sports a subtle black bean sauce. Next out was a perfunctory spicy yellowtail roll. Jade's sushi menu offers the usual suspects: nothing too artful, inventive, or expensive. Unfortunately the Jade's Dim Sum platter -- dumplings, shu mai and spring rolls -- turned out to be "crispy." This preparation should be noted on the menu since many would assume steamed. Gossamer-wrapped shu mai, after all, should never be plunged into hot oil. The delicate flavor is irrevocably shattered.

Entrees are served on what my dining companion termed "the long boats." Soon, a galley of white porcelain sampans docked at our table. The well-turned out gnaw-the-bone Korean short ribs glazed with a sweet garlicky soy sauce were countermanded by the mound of white rice on the other side of the plate. The aromatic Sichuan chicken turned out predictable, not too hot with tender pieces of chicken mixed with broccoli and slivers of red pepper -- and again with a mound of white rice on the other side of the plate. Another entree shined: crisp-skinned duck meat is expertly sautéed and bathed in a savory pool of lightly sweet plum sauce.

Although most Asian meals become a family-style free for all, passing around the long boats at Jade is virtually impossible. The side effect, though, is focusing attention to the plate.

Jade's exhaustive menu reaches other shores. Several curries and noodles dishes, including the Thai Pad Thai, are on the roster. Entrée stir fries include Vietnamese lemongrass and Chinese tangerine, while the specialty entrée list sports a Malaysian flounder and miso glazed sea bass. Lunch prices range from $6 to $15 and dinner from $8 to $25 for Mongolian lamb chops.

Jade is located on the second level of Ballantyne Village Shopping Center. (That's the quadrant with the color-changing air traffic control tower.) Surprisingly, the main dining area gets a little noisy, but more privacy is afforded along the glass perimeters of the room. The sushi bar and the bar area are fused into an "L" off to a side.

To be honest I was glad to find the fusion aspect of Jade on the menu rather than on the plate. Jade Asian Fusion is a pleasant, quasi-exotic neighborhood place for South Charlotte to call its own.

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