Food writers often squirm at the descriptors we lean on to talk about restaurants and bars (I’m looking at you, contemporary American). But “fusion,” or the idea of combining elements from different cuisines into a single dish, might be the worst of all. The word first cropped up in the 1980s, when chef Norman Van Aken claims to have coined it in the name of “Floribbean”—squirm—cooking.
In my dozen years of food writing, I can say that chefs on the whole can’t stand the term, mainly because it represents a glib catchall for the years-long process of tinkering with flavors and techniques to achieve flawless balance.
“I hate the word fusion,” said Pacific Standard Time executive chef/partner Erling Wu-Bower as he knelt beside me, sweating and coated in flour, on my first of two visits. “This food is American.”
Unfortunately, diners require more context from restaurant slogans, however inadequate or trite. For instance, I might have rolled my eyes the first time I read PST’s tagline pledging Californian warmth and authenticity. But visiting cemented how maddenly short this descriptor falls of conveying the enterprising dishes that mingle pristine West Coast bounty with Mediterranean influences and Wu-Bower’s sensory memories of cooking with his mother, a Chinese immigrant and food writer. Then again, maybe not.
“People have always cooked that way out west, no boundaries between cuisines,” Wu-Bower told me. Perhaps we should call it assimilation cooking.
With tables booked solid till 8pm on a recent Tuesday, my date and I tried our luck walking in just after 6pm. The airy 155-seater, which is outfitted in warm wood, white tile and hanging plants, was packed, but we nabbed one of few empty counter seats along the front windows opposite the boisterous bar. PST offers all sorts of ways to eat—four tops scattered across the high-energy dining room, high-top chef’s tables overlooking the kitchen, and a perimeter of slightly quieter booths.
My ice-cold 50/50 martini—with gin, bittersweet corse blanc (a French aperitif), orange bitters and a blistered, vermouth-doused olive—was a clean, no-nonsense salve for a long-ass day. My friend’s quenching milk punch cleverly refreshed the boozy classic of tea, clarified milk and citrus—mixing caramel-like gustoso charanda with more complex caña brava rum, almond oil-infused green tea, warm spices and cooling passionfruit.
A pair of delicious, oil-slicked pita balloons arrived first, piping hot next to cold charred eggplant draped over a milk-white blob of delicate robiolina. Served in a muted red pepper mojo, the veg admittedly left us wanting flavorwise—possibly because the dish that immediately followed was one of the most brightly aromatic, textural salads I’ve ever eaten. Earthy-sweet roasted beets, verdant kale and charred blueberries were wrapped in a bracing yogurt dressing that owed its savory, grapefruit-like citrus quality to koji (a type of mold iconic to Asian cookery).
I’ll have a hard time not ordering pizza every time I come here. The crust—bubbly, tangy and speckled with singe from the hearth—could viably stand alone with a slick of olive oil. It’s also the ideal vehicle for an umami-packed mashup of meaty mushrooms and wads of caramelized cipollini onions piled atop mild stracchino cheese and XO sauce, a savory Hong Kong import that blends dried shellfish and ham.
Wu-Bower might excel most at seafood, which you’d already know if you ever ate at Nico Osteria when he helmed the kitchen. Mild, springy shrimp and pork dumplings waded in amber-hued scallop broth imbued with pork and tinted with shiro dashi, as if to elbow meat lovers a few funky paces into the sea. Slow-burning poblano broth bathed a meaty slab of seared sea bass marked with salty-sweet clams and whisper-thin yuba (tofu skin), its depth countered with the bright crunch of radish.
There’s a good chance you’ll over-order as we did. Even so, you won’t be able to resist pastry chef Natalie Saben’s (Grace) inspired desserts, nor should you. Candy-sweet, California-grown Harry’s strawberries steeped in simple syrup capped a peanutty sunflower cake, whose achingly tender crumb soaked in that ruby juice like a sponge. Puckering huckleberry syrup cascaded over honey ice cream in a wholly original sundae adorned with shards of crisped meringue dusted with Urfa Biber, a Turkish chili pepper whose sundried sweetness lingered on our tongues.
Both represented PST at its best, hitting you with lip-smacking acidity or relentless umami as often as it nudges you a toe out of your comfort zone with murmurs of complexity and depth—a cultural kaleidoscope of flavor packaged in that affably Californian clothing. But I wouldn’t dare call it fusion.
Atmosphere: This sunny, veg-inclined eatery from Underscore Hospitality (Erling Wu-Bower and Joshua Tilden) and One Off Hospitality takes food and drink inspiration from California’s pristine bounty and unique tapestry of cultural influences in a lively, approachable space.
What to eat: Peak produce shines in dishes like avocado salad with chermoula and charred broccoli with oyster mushrooms. Don’t skip the squishy, wood-fired pizzas or flavor-packed seafood dishes. Sharing is your best bet with the wide-ranging offerings—and so you can save room for dessert.
What to drink: Market-driven cocktails like the ever-changing paloma and quenching milk punch go down beautifully alongside the bright, shareable fare. PST’s wines, hailing mainly from the Pacific coast and Europe, lean similarly refreshing and food-friendly.
Where to sit: Reservations are a good idea no matter what night of the week you visit. Request chef’s table seats if you like being part of the action. Counter seats overlooking LaSalle Street are ideal for pairs who love to people watch.
Maggie Hennessy is the restaurant and bar critic for Time Out Chicago. She likes (real) dive bars and bread with every meal. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @edible_words.