11301 West Olypic Boulevard (at Sawtelle), no. 116
West Los Angeles, CA 90064
When Zip Fusion recently opened on Sawtelle, I already had my doubts. I was none too impressed with the first location in LA’s downtown, and since my experience has been that sadly, sequels (almost) never live up to volume one, this Zip Fusion would need some crazy special effects to be a winner over an already *eh* original. And of course, I’m not ashamed to proclaim about asian fusion that: I am. So. Over. It. Like I’m over those fully non-functional quarter sized sweaters that tie under the bustline. Over it.
But I shook off the doubts since giving a second chance means wiping the slate clean of the first offense.
Since I have a very short drive from work to Sawtelle, I arrived first. I could have waited outside, but there was a table of young Asian hipsters who had either already drank too much soju, or were just loud and obnoxious by nature. I’m thinking the former, since their faces were already a glossy pink and a few who had already crossed over to red. I went inside to save myself from the Parliament Lights haze. Mondays are typically slow nights for restaurants, so the fact that the restaurant wasn't completely empty was a promising sign. I need to brush up on my sign-reading skills.
The main guy, I'll call him Jay, just because that's the first name that popped into my head right now, Jay asked me how many. I told him, and without even looking up from whatever he was doing back there behind the host's stand, he pointed over his shoulder and just said, “You can sit over there.” Maybe he was busy, especially since the dining had all of two tables of diners. "Sit." I obeyed. *woof!*
Zip Fusion is located in the Olympic Collection plaza on the northwest corner of Sawtelle and Olympic Boulevard. The restaurant took over the space that used to be occupied by now defunct Cafe Muse, which was on its deathbed, hanging on for fairly long, even changing ownership several times before Zip Fusion finally put it out of its misery. They also infiltrated neighboring Peppermint, a Japanese karaoke studio, and connected the two spaces. Zip now offers its own brand of karaoke.
The interior structure of Zip Fusion’s long, narrow dining room remains the same as Cafe Muse. There are a few tables in the front area, a few tables along the east wall, and long bar along the west wall. The kitchen is in the back, and though not completely open, I spy the cooks back there through the small pick-up window.
It’s dark inside, and the simple, uncategorizable decor doesn’t look like it has changed drastically from its former life as Cafe Muse. Tables, which are dangerously close together, are covered with black leather that has a very Coach white stitching. The walls are dark and plain, but toward the back, there’s a large, muted but colorful painting on the wall. Nothing interesting about the decor, which is normally just fine with me, but I was getting bored. I had been sitting at the table for more than ten minutes with not even a hello. Too bad it was just a baseball game was playing on the flat screen tv on the wall. Anyone? Tumbleweeds.
Finally, I stood up, walked back over to the host’s stand up front, and picked up a menu myself. The young lady behind the bar whom I shall call Susie had a very bored look as she poured drinks and took them to the two other tables in the restaurant. She passed by me several times without even looking in my direction. I’d be a little more forgiving if the restaurant were busy. But it wasn’t. there were two other tables and me. Jay walked by a few times as well, but he must have been busy with something very manager-ly. *roll eyes*
Again, I gave up waiting for service, so I flagged down Susie, but I felt really bad for interrupting whatever she was not doing. She looked annoyed, and didn’t actually make it all the way over to the table. She sort of stood in the walkway and just leaned in without saying a thing. It could have been a demure Asian quietude (please, no offense on the stereotype), or perhaps a shyness about her English. But with raised her eyebrows, I know she didn’t say it out loud, but there was nothing demure about the look that screamed, “God. What?” I asked for some hot tea. She repeated “hot tea” with no accent and quickly walked away.
When we were finally a complete table, we focused on the menu, and I forgot about the (lack of) service. There’s an enormous selection of sushi, but I’m always wary of ordering sushi if I can’t see a sushi bar. No reason really, other than, well, no reason. There’s the standard nigiri sushi, but it’s the variety of maki sushi that makes the list so huge. Some of the maki are familiar, like spicy tuna, california, and even the more creative though still familiar spider, philadelphia, rainbow, and caterpillar. Zip Fusion also has lots of variation on the California roll, rolls that are deep-fried, and even the Sunshine roll that has tomatoes. They’re all called Fusion Rolls on the menu. There it is: fusion.
The regular dinner menu has hot and cold appetizers, salads, full entrees, rice dishes, and tempura. Some dishes are fully one Asian cuisine like Kim-chi Tofu (Korean) or Tempura (Japanese), and others are fairly fusion, like salads that have all kinds of Asian ingredients and flavors. All over the place.
We started with the Kim-chi Tofu, which is a Korean cafe food. In Koreatown, cafes are not coffeehouses. Rather, they are bars/lounges that usually don’t even have a bar, but low tables with comfotable seating that invite long evenings fueled by orders of soju and Crown Royal by the bottle. Cafes serve Korean bistro foods that are similar in concept to and sometimes even imitate American bar foods – things that are quick to prepare and easy to munch on when the focus is far more on the libations and much less on the foods that are keeping us from getting too quickly to a buzz. One of these days, I’ll have to do a write-up on a proper Koreatown crawl, starting with a full dinner, and ee-cha, sahm-cha, and maybe even a sah-cha. But I need a few weeks to train my liver for that.
Zip Fusion’s Kim-chi Tofu is glistening slices of creamy tofu fanned across a black rectangular plate, sprinkled with black sesame seeds. A small pile of sauteed kimchee as also sprinkled with sesame seeds. In the dim light, the dish was beautifully presented, but it made me nervous. Kimchee do
oboo is bar food, and dressing it up is like putting lipstick on a pig. Or a Buffalo wing.
The kimchee was first. As beautifully as it was presented, the kimchee tasted...terrible. It was too sweet. Certainly as a cook, I know you add a hint of sweetness to spicy things to accentuate the heat, but Zip Fusion added so much sugar that it was no longer spicy. In fact, they had added so much sugar to the saute pan, the kimchee was sticky. Like a dessert kimchee compote. I didn’t like it at all.
At least the tofu on the plate is untouched – served as raw slices and eaten together with the kimchee. There was no way I was going to taint the tofu with that sickeningly sweet kimchee, so I tried to take a slice plain. Unsuccessful. Zip Fusion uses soft tofu with their kimchee dooboo instead of regular or even firm tofu. That’s a big no-no, since you can’t use chhopsticks to pick up soft tofu – it slips and breaks apart right there on the plate. We didn’t have spoons, so I had to do some crazy ninja maneuvering of my chopsticks to get a miniscule mass of tofu in my mouth to cleanse my palate of the putrid kimchee taste. Service aside, it wasn’t starting off so well for Zip Fusion.
My fallback spicy food, kimchee, had left me disappointed. I needed spice, so we ordered the Spicy Calamari, which Zip Fusion demands, “Must try!” I had been commanded to sit when I first got there, so I guess I’d order the calamari, too. It came out in the same long rectangular dish, also sprinkled with black sesame seeds. Again, it made me nervous, because basically, spicy calamari is Korean oh-jing-uh bokkeum, a tasty tangle of squid, vegetables, and ever so sweetened super spicy ggoh-choo-jahng sauce. Zip Fusion’s looked like a bloody mess of sliced condoms. Even the baby squid heads looke like...well, you get the picture.
I ate one. Actually, I didn’t eat it. I tasted it, and forced myself to swallow, but I can’t say I “ate” anything, because it was nauseating. I had gotten over the condom conundrum but the wicked little things did nothing to redeem themselves with their actual taste. Sometimes rubbery, sometimes undercooked, completely inconsistent squid, not made better hidden in a sauce, but made worse with that same sickeningly saccharin sweet syrup on the kimchee. Despicable.
Next up was the Dressed Red. Strange name, but at least they didn’t call it Best Dressed, because this one wasn’t even pretty. I had hope. Perhaps the converse of “If it’s beautiful it tastes like doodoo” would be true for Zip. The uglier looking, the better tasting. Besides, how could they possible destroy a fresh tomato stuffed with spicy tuna? I’ll tell you how. It was a bad tomato. Either that, or they don’t now how to pick and prepare tomatoes. The thin tomato skin was dry and peeling off the tomato, which they should have completely removed, or at least not cooked it all the way to tough. We removed the tomato lid that protected the inside from the miserable cream sauce, that was, yes, too sweet. Does the cook not now the difference between a teaspoon of sugar and...a ladle!??!
The spicy tuna inside was almost laughable. It wasn’t spicy, and it wasn’t even identifiable as tuna. To be quite honest, because it was overcooked, it tasted like canned tuna. Or cat food. It might have been mixed with mayo, but my tastebuds didn’t have it in them to even try to figure it out. So far, Zip Fusion was zero for three.
Well, I guess I didn’t get it into my head that Zip’s interpretation of “spicy” is slightly off. We orderd the Zip Spicy Chicken Tenders, marinated in garlic, deep fried, and served with a spicy sauce. Or so they say. There was nary a hint of garlic nor spice, the batter was doughy and way too thick and chewy for the size of the chicken pieces, and the frying temperature of the oil must have been set too low, since the coating was greasy. I wanted to brush my teeth after tasting the sauce to save them from decay. It tasted like a Krispy Kreme version of Panda Express’s Orange Chicken. At least I’ll give it to them that the chicken was tender. And the fried leeks or whatever were crispy. They could have been toothpicks, but at least they weren’t doused with sugar syrup.
I couldn’t take it anymore. Something, anything that was salty or spicy. And we ordered the bacon wrapped asparagus. Anything wrapped with bacon is going to taste good. I should watch what I say because I used to say that anything deep-fried will taste great and looked what happened to the chicken. So, anything deep fried or wrapped in bacon tastes good, unless it’s brushed with sugar syrup. Zip Fusion brushed the asparagus with that sauce. It was too much.
Unless we had just gotten really unlucky and somehow ordered every dish that just so happens to have the same sauce, the food all tasted the same. Some of it was bad, and some of it was ugly, all of it as way too sweet. Someone might say “you didn’t order the right things.” No, not-right things shouldn’t be on the menu in the first place. I don’t know if I can stick to my rule of giving everyone a second chance for Zip Fusion. In fact, I don’t think I have to since, I already gave them their first chance downtown.
We skipped dessert. I would have been absolutely livid if the desserts were salty.