Let’s begin with the name, Ai Fusion. Fusion I get, but Ai? Artificial Intelligence?
I settled on it being shorthand for Asian Influenced. That’s when I got an eye roll from my Japanese-speaking spouse, who informed me Ai is Japanese for love.
Linguistic missteps aside, I confess to being a bit love-struck by Ai Fusion. I could write a sonnet about its shrimp tempura, but fortunately for you, I won’t. Suffice it to say there is plenty of kitchen love involved in preparing food here.
Begin with the aforementioned shrimp tempura appetizer ($7).
Lightly battered and flash fried, this was the single best thing I tasted in two visits to Ai Fusion. In fact, I loved it so much that for the entree, I ordered the shrimp tempura udon ($12). It’s a huge bowl of thick noodles swimming in rich broth. The shrimp comes on the side. Plop the shrimp into the broth and dive in. Like many of Ai Fusion entrees, the udon is outsized — a full meal in itself.
And speaking of outsized, check out the menu. Sheathed in metal, this tome is hefty enough to double as a door stop. Its interior is encyclopedic. I counted 70 different sushi roll choices — 70!
Some delicious puns are scattered throughout it too, including the Star Wars-influenced Han So Roll. This $14 appetizer is shrimp tempura and cucumber topped by white tuna and avocado. It was outstanding, only to be outdone by an incredible soft-shell crab appetizer ($7). I’m beginning to see a pattern here, because the crab was prepared tempura-style. The crab meat is slightly sweet and salty, and so tender you can eat the little crab claws as well.
Which we did.
Let us talk tofu for a minute. I hate tofu — or thought I did. Then one night long ago, Judy took me to the now-long-gone Murasaki restaurant in East Lansing. She ordered agedashi tofu. I mentally gave her an eye roll, but agreed to try this white, gelatinous chunk of spongy soy glop. Agedashi (ah-gay dah-she) is barely battered, quickly fried and served with various kinds of smoky, soy-based sauces. I took one bite, and fell in love with tofu — or at least this dish.
That backstory serves as a way to introduce Ai Fusion’s iteration of agedashi tofu.
This $5 appetizer is every bit as good as my first bite at Murasaki. Tofu: Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it, agedashi style.
Moving beyond the fried stuff, I recommend the teppanyaki filet mignon ($16).
These are chunks of tender steak served with al dente broccoli. Teppanyaki roughly translates as “grilled on an iron plate.” I ordered the steak rare, and it arrived just that way. Perfect.
Yet every romance has its hiccups, and it’s fair to say Ai Fusion is not an everlasting love story. The $5 vegetarian gyoza (dumplings) underperformed. In fact, we didn’t know they were vegetarian until they reached our table. In our experience, gyoza has some sort of ground meat such as pork.
Other hiccups: — The fried rice accompanying the teppanyaki was fried only in the theoretical sense of the word.
— The Sumo Avocado appetizer ($8) had tuna, crab and cream cheese, sprinkled with sesame seeds. The combination was spot on, but then the after-burn kicked in and the spices vanquished the other flavors.
— Our table had mixed reviews about the salad, which comes with every meal. Some loved the sweet-andsour dressing. Judy and I thought it was far too sweet.
If ambience matters — it does to most diners — then consider Ai Fusion a delight. It manages to be spacious and cozy all at once. There are four “dadami” rooms that are semi-private, away from the main dining room. Kick off your shoes, literally, and settle in with a small group of friends.
The dining room itself is wood-centric, highlighted by a drop ceiling that reminded me of parquetry. There’s a miniature koi pond next to the bar, and, yes, those are real live koi swimming about. Wait, who am I kidding? I’m no ichthyologist. They were fish of some sort, and I think they were real. Probably.
The dining crowd at Ai Fusion is eclectic. We saw families with youngsters, baby boomers such as ourselves and lots of college-age wannabe hipsters. For me, the kicker came during our second visit. Over the speaker Bruce Springsteen belted out “Glory Days.”
“Glory Days.” Such a great song. Several years ago, it became my cell phone’s personal ring tone. Now, how could a guy like me not fall for a place like Ai?
Authentic and a touch of eclectic
I am a devoted sushi lover. Last fall, when I was presented with the opportunity to travel to Otsu, Japan, Lansing’s Sister City, my first thoughts — after the initial wondering what I was going to do on a 14-hour flight — were for the food. I was so excited to try true Japanese sushi and ramen, and while I sampled plenty of both of those things, I was happy to learn that we have quality sushi in the Lansing area.
Although I feast on sushi as frequently as possible, I’ll admit that I’m a creature of habit and don’t often stray from my favorite Okemos Maru. I had never been to Ai Fusion, but after a few visits Mr. She Ate and I made ourselves familiar with most sections of the menu. On our first visit, we started with an order of gyoza ($5), more commonly known as dumplings. We love these little half-moon shaped, wonton-wrapped packages of minced vegetables, but disappointingly these gyoza ranked among some of the more flavorless we’ve sampled. Things got better with the bulgogi beef dinner ($14) — essentially a skillet of thinly shaved steak atop fresh broccoli and sweet potatoes. We chose pan fried noodles for the carby side, and I used them to soak up the savory sauce in the bottom of the skillet.
Sushi lovers that we are, we rounded out the meal with a Michigan roll ($8.50) and a P.I.T.A. roll ($9) to share. The Michigan roll was our favorite — crab salad and avocado topped with fresh salmon and honey wasabi sauce. Still, I only indulged in a piece or two because common practices encourage pregnant women to limit their intake of raw fish, and Baby She Ate will be joining us in December. (Yes, this is our announcement to the world and YES, I have been ravenous since finding out!) The P.I.T.A. roll is a creation unique to Ai Fusion. The tuna, salmon, crab, steamed shrimp, asparagus and avocado are wrapped in thinly-sliced cucumber, as opposed to the traditional rice and possible nori (edible dehydrated seaweed, the dark green stuff that you frequently see wound around a sushi roll.) A bite of this roll confirmed that while sushi rice is one of the more innocuous ingredients on the block, its flavor is important to a delicious roll. In other words, this cucumber creation might be a boon for those watching their carbs, but it didn’t make for a flavorful bite.
I also ordered a seaweed salad ($4) to accompany my beef and gyoza, but was confronted with a problem I’ve never experienced. The seaweed strands were cold. Not a little chilly, but positively so frigid that I couldn’t eat the salad for the pain it caused in my teeth. I could have taken it home to finish later, but the thought of leftover, melted seaweed didn’t do much to settle my already tentative stomach situation.
On our return visit, we started with the spicy mussel appetizer ($8). I don’t know what my husband was thinking, he of the “I don’t think food should hurt” sentiment, because these mussels were giant, tasty, and incredibly spicy. As we mopped up our tooth sweat, we watched our server pile our table with dishes full of curry chicken ($16), a Buffalo roll ($8.50) and teppanyaki chicken and shrimp ($18). The Buffalo roll, a spicy tuna roll with cucumber topped with avocado, spicy mayo and Sriracha, was delicious. (Before the advice starts rolling in, they say a few bites of sushi is OK.) Strictly speaking, sushi rolls doctored up with things like tempura batter, spicy mayo and the like aren’t to be compared with traditional Japanese sushi, which prizes the simplicity of the perfectly prepared rice and delicate raw fish. But man, does the combination of the spice and the creaminess of the avocado make this roll delicious.
My chicken and shrimp skillet had the protein tossed with broccoli, sweet potatoes, and mushrooms, similar to the bulgogi beef entrée on our previous visit. Again, I chose pan-fried noodles over white rice or fried rice, and there was enough left after we sampled the dish for me to have leftovers for lunch the next day.
His curry chicken dish won the texture award for the night, since the thinly-sliced chicken breast was lightly breaded in panko (Japanese bread crumbs). The curry flavor was rich and distinctive, as curry always is. (Has anyone ever said, “Do I detect a hint of curry?” Is a “hint” of curry even possible?) A word on service — it was above average. Our first visit was on a busy night and our server warned us that the sushi might be a while. It wasn’t, and the delivery time was perfectly appropriate, but we appreciated her word of warning. On a return visit, as our server and Mr. She Ate bonded over a mutual love of New Balance shoes, I marveled over the fact that he was juggling numerous tables of large parties with complicated orders. He apologized for his perceived inattention to us — we didn’t feel slighted in the least — and offered us a free sushi roll, which we appreciated but declined. We didn’t want to make him pay for something we didn’t think was an issue.