I’ve heard a lot of griping from locals, both through this column and around town, regarding Collingswood's Restaurant Row.
Their general message is that new eateries pop up infrequently, and when something new does come along, it tends to be…Italian.
It’s a valid concern. There’s a lot of pride in the dining scene, which I (and many others) consider to be the finest in South Jersey. Staying relevant in this industry requires setting new trends. Stephen Starr, the undisputed Restaurant King of Philadelphia, almost never repeats himself. Every new establishment begins as a unique concept with a new philosophy and a distinct goal. Starr has built an empire by deciding that Philadelphia wants what it doesn’t already have and filling that gap.
Collingswood has taken great strides to distance itself from the pre-packaged dining fabrications that are typical of suburban restaurant landscapes, and perhaps that’s why the news of another new Italian restaurant elicits more eye-rolls than anticipation.
That’s not to take anything away from many of the wonderful Italian restaurants that have established themselves in Collingswood. I’ll be the first to admit that an abundance of quality Italian restaurants is a champagne problem if there ever was one, but like many of the people who frequent Haddon Avenue, I’m always keeping my eyes out for something new and different.
With that being said, a new establishment just popped up that fits that description. You may have noticed that , the Asian vegetarian restaurant sharing a doorway with at 655 Haddon Ave., has closed.
Taking its place is an Asian fusion restaurant called , which draws inspiration from the cuisines of Southeast Asia, mixing Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and Thai flavors to create a memorable dining experience.
Full disclosure: I’ve only a passing knowledge of Asian cuisine, and when I met with Fusion Bay consultant Betty Mon over an assortment of drinks, appetizers and entrees, I felt compelled to confess this. I’m in no way a food critic. What I do know, and what Fusion Bay excelled at, is good food, a great atmosphere and an abundance of ambition.
It’s the ambition behind Fusion Bay that should drive its success here in Collingswood. Don’t get me wrong; the food is wonderful. Two of my favorite entrees were the Korean pork chop—tangy strips of marinated pork served sizzling on a scorching hot cast iron like a fajita—and the Thai spare ribs: tender and served in an edible pumpkin bowl.
Asian fusion is nothing new, but I’ve never seen it executed quite like Fusion Bay does, with old favorites sharing menu space with Chef Jacky Mai’s own inventions. Another playful twist is the “fast food” section, which Americanizes classic Chinese take-out dished to cover all bases.
The menu is a bit cluttered, which is unfortunate, because the taste and presentation of the food typically exceeds its bland description. “Shrimp in creamy sriracha sauce,” for example, doesn’t do justice to the explosively tasty bed of fried shrimp smothered in a flavorful hot mayo. Fusion Bay has the kind of menu where your best bet might be to pick at random and put your faith in the kitchen.
That approach seems to match well with the exciting picture Mon painted for me of what Fusion Bay strives to be. Chef Mai and sibling-owners Cindy and Tony Chen want to put their own twist on the familiar while having fun and ensuring that guests are having fun as well. The irony of their style is that most of the food they’re preparing wouldn’t be recognizable back home, but that’s not stopping them from creating something memorable.
Fusion Bay is something new, something different, and something good. It’s peking duck burritos sharing a menu with deep fried Japanese seafood rolls. It’s large plates of seafood fried rice baked under a sheet of creamy mozzarella, and traditional Vietnamese Pho that does most of its cooking on the journey from the kitchen to the table. It’s a much-needed breath of fresh air to Collingswood’s restaurant scene, and if enough people give it the chance it deserves, it ought to become a local favorite in no time.
-I nearly forgot! Remember to try one of the delicious smoothies or bubble tea: a Taiwanese juice and tea drink dotted with gummy tapioca pearls. I loved the green apple.
-Saturday is the 33rd Annual May Fair. If this is the first time you’re hearing about it (yeah, right), make sure you clear your schedule and attend. It’s a blast!
-Friday, June 1 from 5-9 p.m. is First Friday in Haddonfield, featuring a mix of music, on-street artists, extraordinary dining and in-store specials.
-Follow me on Twitter @Davevaliante. I’ll be chronicling my eating adventures around Collingswood and my frustrations with the Phillies.