Chain food for grown-ups

Restaurant: Fuzio offers a reasonably sophisticated menu, low prices and a cheerful balance of formality and informality.

Sunday Gourmet

March 03, 2002|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

If I have to eat in a chain restaurant, let it be like Fuzio.

This is the bright new eatery in the Arundel Mills Mall. It's pleasant, adult, reasonably sophisticated and nothing on the regular menu costs more than $10.

A chic little bar sits to one side where customers can get specialty martinis in glasses with zigzag stems and eat without the kids. There's also a jazzy, comfortable dining room decorated in primary colors and bold art, with an exhibition kitchen in back.

Children are welcome here, but this probably isn't going to be their first choice of eating places in the mall. As a result, Fuzio seems more grown-up than some of the mall's other eating places -- although not too grown up. That is rock 'n' roll on the sound system, after all. The tables, covered in white tablecloths and white paper, suggest the balance of formal and informal dining the restaurant offers.

Fuzio's concept is simple. Take a bunch of the world's most popular pasta dishes and serve them up. So, for instance, Sicilian linguine and meatballs shares space on the menu with a Japanese udon bowl. The chain's corporate office calls it "Universal Pasta."

As restaurant concepts go, this should be a winner: The food is reasonably healthful, and it relies more on exotic flavors like lemongrass and chipotle chiles than large cuts of meat, so most of it is inexpensive.

Pasta isn't the only thing on the menu. In fact, the most successful dish we had was an appetizer of Thai mussels and clams. The shellfish, draped gracefully with julienne vegetables, was bathed in a delicate broth of coconut milk, curry, cilantro and fresh ginger. The dish was clean and light and worthy of the best Thai restaurant in town. On the other hand, the least successful dish wasn't pasta either. A salmon special that was supposed to be prepared Mediterranean style came instead with a thick cream sauce.

Fuzio's fried calamari is likable, with a fresh-tasting marinara for dipping; and bruschetta (the restaurant's own focaccia, tomatoes and fresh basil) made us all happy. But the Asian-inspired food carried the day, particularly the Vietnamese springrolls with chicken, fresh mint and vegetables rolled in a soft rice wrapper.

Pair thin rice noodles with chicken, add bean sprouts, cilantro and chopped peanuts, and you have Fuzio's pleasing version of pad thai. The udon bowl is a winner, too, with thick, perfectly cooked noodles and a few fat shrimp and Asian vegetables perched on top.

If your tastes run to Southwest flavors, the barbwire chicken offers plenty of fire with slices of breast, a chipotle cream sauce, corn and red peppers over gemelli pasta. Oddly enough, the simplest pasta dish was the one I liked least: angel hair pasta with fresh tomatoes, olive oil and cheese. The garlic was strong and didn't taste fresh, and the thin, sticky pasta got monotonous quickly.

Desserts are made in house and include a classic tiramisu, gelato and a grainy but still seductive chocolate pot de creme. My favorite, though, was sliced strawberries and apples in a lemon mascarpone cream with amaretto cookie crumbs on top -- a fine, light combination of appealing tastes and textures.

Fuzio does a good job of putting interesting, inexpensive meals on the table, and I'd like to recommend it wholeheartedly. But first, the restaurant needs to get its service problems under control. Maybe I'm asking too much when I want more than a friendly waiter who brings food to the table promptly -- our waiter did just that. There are plenty of hands to help, and that's good.

But dirty dishes didn't get completely cleared away before the next course arrived. Silverware was taken away and not replaced. Not everyone's food arrived at the same time. The coffee came in cups without saucers (because the dishwasher was a no-show). And the coffee sat till it got lukewarm before the waiter brought us cream. Finally, a glass of Chianti I ordered never showed up, but it certainly showed up on the bill.


Food: ***

Service: **

Atmosphere: ***

Where: Arundel Mills Mall

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $3.50-7.95; main courses, $6.95-$12.95

Call: 410-799-6642

Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor:*

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