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Eastern Swing

by B.A. Nilsson on December 1, 2011

Phila Fusion Asian Restaurant and Bar, 54 Phila St., Saratoga Springs, 226-0400, philafusion.com. Serving lunch 11:30-3 Mon-Sun, dinner 5-10 Sun-Thu, 5-10:30 Fri-Sat. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: pan-Asian

Entrée price range: $12 (noodle soup) to $20 (sea bass)

Ambiance: bright and cheerful

With the Thanksgiving bacchanalia fresh on the palate and a fridge stuffed with calorie-rich leftovers, nobody wanted to face the prospect of another meal. Certainly not another meal at home, where guilt and economics would demand a refashioning of what’s at hand. “If you could pick anything to eat,” I asked the family, “what would it be?”

Can I say right here that, for a family that dines out as much as we do, there can be a lack of creative vision? Thus it was I who floated the prospect of noodle soup. Combined with a trip to Saratoga Springs, and its attendant shopping potential, we had a plan.

Phila Fusion opened next door to Sushi Thai Garden, not at all coincidentally: They’re run by the same family, the newer restaurant intended as a higher-end alternative. But not that much higher, really. Pricing is reasonable, especially for Saratoga, with the most expensive entrée clocking in at 20 bucks. (Big sushi arrangements are pricier, of course, but they arrive in large, decorative wooden boats, and who can begrudge paying for that?)

We knew the pricing in advance because we’d consulted the online menu. Just as every restaurant should have a stack of giveaway menus on hand, so too should there be a web presence. It’s just smart business. But please don’t force music on me when I visit your website. Speaking of enforced entertainment: The dining areas of Phila Fusion are so attractive that it’s a shame to find a pair of large TV screens giving off the Food Network. Unless it’s a sports bar or some similarly entertainment-specific place, TV of any kind is insulting in a public place. It’s worsened by the idiocy of the Food Network, which reduces culinary affairs to celebrity-driven sporting events.

Otherwise, I found the arrangement of tables and translucent screens artfully done, accented with shrewd lighting. The seven-seat sushi bar is appointed with the decorative boats and platters on which your order will arrive, with a large Maneki Neko beckoning from the center of the bar.

The noodle soups at Phila Fusion cross cultures, with a selection of Vietnamese phơ ($12-$13), Japanese udon ($12) and a couple of Thai selections, including kao soi ($13), which sent two of our foursome in that direction. My daughter jumped at the phơ, which comes with scallions and onions in the broth and a side dish of basil and bean sprouts and slices of lime. You have a choice of sliced meat: beef, pork or chicken, shrimp, meat- or fish-balls and more, but she wanted to stay dietarily calm with a mixed-vegetable array. It proved to be a very large portion of a lightly flavored broth hiding the traditional rice noodles, with added carrots, celery, cucumber and broccoli. The dish itself is said to come from a hundred-year-old combination of the noodles with French-inspired soup, reflecting the great Gallic influence on Vietnamese cuisine.

When it comes to kao soi, however, we’re seeing the Thai style of curry, typically lightened (as in this soup) with coconut milk. It’s one of my favorites, and the Phila Fusion version, served in a large, rectangular tureen, had the expected submerged soft noodles and floating crisp ones, with onions and peppers completing the basic mixture. Again, there’s a choice of meat or tofu. I opted for chicken, which seems to suit the creamy nature of this mildly spicy dish.

Chicken is the usual destination for my wife, who passed on General Tso’s (here re-versioned as General Tao’s, but still the classic American dish) and sesame chicken ($14 each) in favor of Thai garlic sauce with chicken ($14, and available with other meat and tofu and, for a buck more, shrimp or squid). Again, a lighter flavor than expected, which meant less garlicky than I would have expected, and with a strong presence of sesame oil. As with all the dishes we were served, it was nicely presented with broccoli, tomato slices and cucumber among the garnishes, along with some carved carrot.

We naturally gave pride of place to the opinion of Lily’s friend and classmate Ziqian, a China native who joined us for dinner. Her order of Thai Basil Fried Rice ($11) had a vigorous mixture of onions, scallions and pepper slices with the well-seasoned rice, although the fried tofu was all skin and no flavor.

With sushi and sashimi central to the menu, we went the easy (and economical) way by ordering a couple of rolls—California ($6), with cucumber and avocado and so-called crab (surimi), and spicy tuna ($8), each of the latter slices decorated with a pepper rind and a dab of pink mayo. The wasabi is piped onto the serving plate, and the addition of shredded carrots and cabbage made for a handsome plate.

Several Korean dishes are featured, including bulgoki ($16), bi bimbab ($15) and a barbecued ribs dish called kalbi ($16). Pad Thai ($12), massaman curry ($14-$18) and tom yum soup ($12) are among the Thai classics, and there’s much more melding those cultures within one dish.

Desserts in Asian restaurants can tend toward the frivolous. My wife ordered the cheesecake tempura ($5) hoping that some spirit of scientific inquiry would mask her craving for sugar. The crispy outside was shell-like, revealing a good slice of cheesecake still frozen at its center that nevertheless vanished quickly.

Overall, Phila Fusion’s striking decor led me to expect something sassier in the food department. While there was nothing at all unpleasant about the food, I was hoping for more of a departure from what seems to be the norm: bolder flavors, more adventurous presentation. Still, it’s a comfortable and attractive place to be, especially when its neighbor gets overfilled.