The term “Asian fusion” is nowhere to be found in my copy of Larousse Gastronomique, or in its newer, more folksy colleague, The Oxford Companion to Food. When I asked my friend the food aristocrat for her view on the subject, she crinkled her nose. “Soggy grilled salmon fillet over bok choy and sake broth,” she whispered, horrified. All cooking is fusion to some degree, but the Asian variety popularized by masters like Jean-Georges Vongerichten (Asian-French fusion) and Nobu Matsuhisa (Japanese-Peruvian) has suffered from all sorts of gimmickry and imitation over the years. Fusion establishments pop up around town like hothouse orchids, then wither away. Those that last often lose their dazzle after repeated visits. Even the best of them (like Vong) tend to survive on the patronage of tourists and first-timers, like the culinary equivalent of an elaborate Las Vegas magic show.
But the magic, in the hands of an accomplished practitioner, is always something to see. Chef Gary Robins made his fusion reputation several years ago at the now-defunct Aja and has been wandering the restaurant landscape like a Japanese ronin ever since. Three months ago, he was hired on at Mi, a small Pan-Asian restaurant on the margins of the Flatiron district, next to the old flophouse Madison Hotel. Clunky concoctions like bulgogi with pine nuts – the owners are Korean – suddenly vanished, and in their place Robins has conjured up a variety of strange and subtle dishes. There are Indian samosas filled with coriander-scented duck confit. If you’re looking for pine nuts, you’ll find them in steamy little dumplings containing four kinds of wild mushrooms. There’s even foie gras, seared in the classic way, sitting atop a mound of dense black Thai rice and surrounded by a fan of fresh mangoes for sweetness.
Mi looks less like a gourmet restaurant than a modern Japanese sushi bar, with a jumble of Pan-Asian knickknacks thrown in. There are samurai swords on the walls, even a full-size female mannequin dressed in ceremonial Korean costume. Twelve different sakes are offered on the menu, plus a complete selection of traditional sushi, served on giant BAMboo trays. Robins has nothing to do with the sushi, but many of his dishes have an inventive Japanese twist. His deliciously brittle vegetable tempura (lunchtime only) is served Portale-style – Robins was once a saucier at the Gotham Bar and Grill – in a little golden stack. A helping of soft Maine scallops, coated in green panko crumbs, is arranged in a similar tower, while his seviche consists of lightly seared pieces of hamachi tuna, plated in sweet ponzu dipping sauce, with slivers of jalapeño, jicama, and a cooling dollop of watermelon sorbet on top.
Most of these exotic creations manage to refrain from tipping too far into the realm of fusion madness. Even the militant foodies at our table admired Robins’s Chilean sea bass, which was marinated in miso and steamed to a milky sweetness, then served with a bundle of somen noodles. My wife gave her benediction to a helping of striped bass, doused in peppery Indian spices and sautéed in fillets small enough to be eaten with chopsticks. Chopsticks were also the best utensil for the slices of seared salmon (in a hot-and-sour lemongrass broth), as well as something called “sake-steamed cockles.” This bizarrely delicious lunchtime dish consisted of steamed cockles and fat udon noodles, all swimming in a greenish chili-cilantro broth. The noodles were flecked with bits of Chinese sausages, and the whole concoction tasted sweetly of herbs.
There’s also a passable fusion lamb chop at Mi (crusted in hot Goan spices), a decent fusion duck (spiced with cloves and Szechuan peppercorns), even a little stack of tenderloin fillets, served with gingery puréed sweet potatoes and a kind of chili-pepper chutney on the side. These beefy dishes feel unusually healthy, and they’re complemented by a roster of equally light desserts. Robins’s crème brûlée has a creamy consistency, like flan, and is tinged with jasmine tea. His raspberry napoleon consists of fat, fresh berries stacked on layers of sugary phyllo pastry, with rich deposits of lemongrass-coconut curd in between. He’s even conjured up a fluffy passion-fruit soufflé, which you can bomb with a ball of freshly made coconut sorbet. This accomplished little dish is as good as anything you’ll find in the fancy non-fusion joints uptown. Catch it now, before Robins decides to pack up his bag of magic tricks again and move on.
Mi, 66 Madison Avenue (212-252-8888). Lunch, Monday through Friday, noon to 2:30 p.m.; dinner, Monday through Friday, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Saturday, 6 to 11 p.m. Appetizers $7 to $18; entrées $21 to $29. All major credit cards.