Creative cuisine in Lowell cafe
45 Palmer St., Lowell
Hours: Monday-Wednesday, 11:30 a.m.-6 p.m.; Thursday and Friday, 11:30 a.m.-midnight; Saturday, noon-midnight; closed Sunday.
Major credit cards accepted
It’s easy to find something to love at Fuse Bistro. The cuisine is inventive and the kitchen’s thrust is local and fresh.
Vegetables hail from Farmer Dave’s down the road in Dracut and this time of year asparagus, stunning green and meaty sprigs, rule the menu.
Less than a year old, the downtown Lowell bistro is fast filling a void: Better than decent food at on-the-mark prices. But the best thing Fuse has to offer is not on the menu. Its sprawling patio stretches around the corner, Parisian-style.
At the vertex of Palmer and Middle streets, where cobblestones still rule, Fuse is ground zero for alfresco dining. And by this time next month, it will be impossible to do what we did: Waltz onto the sidewalk cafe on a gorgeous night and have our pick of tables.
It’s nice to see this generous space, a hallmark of Caffe Paradiso, the former late-night hotspot that closed here in 2010, populated by downtowners again as well as the newly discovered tucking into post-work noshes.
The story behind the bistro’s moniker is threefold. Fuse is located in a former firehouse, libations are infused with fruit, and fusion cuisine, a mashup of ethnic elements, is its forte.
We start with vegetable spring rolls ($7), which arrive in a Chinese takeout container with spicy Napa slaw and savory sauces for dipping.
Loaded with soy-braised cabbage, mushrooms, and carrots, the crispy rolls were cleverly styled and served with chopsticks. A festive start to a run-of-the-mill Monday night.
The menu is a fun, diverse romp with baby back ribs, grass-fed beef, and crab Rangoon vying for your every yen. This playful, trendy array is another sign that Lowell’s dining scene has improved dramatically in the last five or six years.
Perusing the menu, my eyes raced to the bottom of the page, landing on Fuse’s fabulous sides. Gruyere tater tots called out to me. These crispy potato doughnut holes pack a subtle punch of nutty, melted Swiss cheese. Hot and heavenly bar food. The texture and taste is 100 percent perfection. And for $4, it’s a killer app, side, or even meal paired with a Caesar or organic baby lettuce salad (both $7).
I sidestepped the Cape Cod crunch burger (they seem to have a thing for potatoes here) in favor of the seared saku tuna burger ($11).
Arriving with a colorful salad and wasabi aioli sauce on a tasty bun, it looked great. Just wish it tasted better. Everyone assured me the pinkish center was not raw, rather perfectly cooked. I’m still not sure, and ate around the edges.
My husband’s Kobe meatloaf ($16) was a well-balanced slab placed artfully on a mound of truffled mashed potatoes. The texture was pleasing and very flavorful. An ample portion served with a pile of French fried onion sticks and garlicy steamed baby spinach tasted as good as it looked.
When the pan-seared Scottish salmon ($19) arrived across the table with a bed of haricots verts smothered in green goddess dressing and a minted pea puree, it looked like spring on a plate. So fresh and authentic, I wanted to cry out in protest. I should have ordered that!
Our friend assured me it was top-notch and consumed it so fast, I’ll have to take his word for it.
The Statler chicken ($18) was an all-natural affair served with a fricassee of wild mushrooms, dainty carrots, and asparagus in a light sherry mushroom jus. Another hit. The fingerling potatoes sogged up in the sauce a tad too quickly, but the overall execution was superb.
A quick note about service: It needs help.
A handful of Yelpers felt the way we did. Cooling our heels for a good 15 to 20 minutes before we were acknowledged does not a welcoming experience make.
For most of the evening, we felt less like guests in someone’s home and more like tolerated interlopers. With large doors propped ajar onto the sidewalk and no hostess in sight, they need to monitor the patio more closely this time of year.
With so much attention paid to plating, it’s odd that the service is such an afterthought at Fuse. Don’t they know that besides food and ambience, service is a hallmark of the dining experience?
As someone in our party put it, “It’s not bar food, but you get bar service.”
If they can tighten this up, encourage servers to interact with guests, and rattle off specials without a prompt, Fuse could really catch fire.