AVALON - Bright lights, small city. When pundits speak about restaurants having a New York vibe, they must have Fuze in mind. The interior is muted colors, grays and blacks, stone and wood, glass-block walls and a fly-curtain room divider made of more modern materials. One wall is all live candles, and the centerpiece of the room is a somewhat-sweeping set of stairs - set center stage - that leads to, or from, the hotel that shares the same building. The music is live and the menu is upscale. Sounds a lot like New York.
And did we mention the food?
We settled into the comfy, tufted banquettes and sipped some bubbly water as an aperitif. We arrived early to a quiet dining room, but were pleasantly surprised when the room quickly began to fill up. We noticed many guests stopping at the handsome bar first for a beverage of choice. It seemed to loosen up the crowd, and as the noise level increased so did all the normal activity of servers darting about the room as customers settled into their tables. Shortly, we weren't the only ones clapping for the musical duo at the end of each song. The room suddenly had momentum of its own.
Then, our dinner service began in earnest.
The simply titled poached shrimp ($15) was formed in the shape of a tower - via a collar mold - with a dice of papaya and pineapple as its building blocks. Topped with a fried ring of sliced plantain stuffed with a cilantro salad and sauces of vanilla-bean vinaigrette and blood-orange reduction spooned onto the plate, the weakest link was the shrimp salad itself. It was underseasoned and somewhat flat tasting, but became better when taking the time to include some of everything in each bite. But why should the diner have to do all the work?
Simpler still was a classic mushroom risotto ($12), with assorted slices of mushrooms and served with a dollop of porcini foam, a concentrated, earthy concoction of flavor situated on the top. The addition of three cheeses - gruyere, mascarpone and parmigiano - was then topped with a pinch of micro greens. If you have ever seen Gordon Ramsay screaming about the risotto on television, you will recognize the argument over how the rice should be cooked: slightly tender or more al dente.
My dining companion would have preferred it more cooked, but I thought this version was "spot on." For entrees, we sampled the popular orecchiette "mac & cheese" ($23), a traditional comfort food driven by excellent ingredients. The large, white oven dish arrived bubbling hot, with a toasty breadcrumb crust on top. A Wisconsin bechamel cream sauce bound everything together with the addition of crispy speck - a smoky version of prosciutto, oven-roasted tomato compote and chives. They must know what they are doing up in chilly Wisconsin, because the dish was a hit.
What did the kitchen do with an ingredient like chicken? They took half of a free-range chicken ($24) and roasted it until it had crispy skin, then placed it over some slow-roasted root vegetables, fingerling potatoes and a basic chicken-stock reduction.
Dessert was the bombe. The chocolate Grand Marnier bombe ($10), a rich-and-creamy mousse inside of a soft-chocolate coating that was served with creme-anglais sauce spooned onto the plate.
Servers and bartenders were dressed in crisp, black uniforms. Our server was confident and knowledgeable, just the opposite of another, who had to return to the kitchen for answers and seemed unsure of his every move.
Describing Fuze as sophisticated, urban or contemporary all seems to fit the scene. It's an oasis of chic in a quiet seashore setting that's driving distance from New York.
(C.C. Hoyt is the pseudonym of a southern New Jersey food writer. Write to Hoyt c/o Food Editor James Clark at firstname.lastname@example.org. Restaurant-ratings guide: 4 stars, extraordinary; 3 stars, excellent; 2 stars, good; 1 star, fair; 0 stars, poor.)
7888 Dune Drive
Hours: Dinner Wednesday through Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m. Closed Monday and Tuesday.
Liquor license: Yes
Credit cards: All major
Disabled access: Yes
Price range: Appetizers $12 to $22; entrees $23 to $38
Our bill for two: $108 plus tip
Web site: www.