By Brianna Chu
Located on Sierra Madre Boulevard in Sierra Madre, Sierra Fusion lets you know what it’s all about right in its name. It’s a cozy but not stuffy spot, with large windows and an accent brick wall on the far end with handpainted, one-of-a-kind artworks on the walls. The artist who paints them does so specifically for the restaurant, and some patrons have even bought paintings from Sierra Fusion’s very walls. Two paintings that are very much not for sale, however, are the statement samurai and tranquil koi pieces, though many have inquired after the samurai painting – to no avail!
The two head chefs of Sierra Fusion are Joseph Ungrue and Christina Duarte. Christina actually met Joseph’s father, Edward Ungrue, before she met now-fiancé Joseph. After attending Le Cordon Bleu, she spent time as Edward’s apprentice during his years as Executive Chef at the San Gabriel Country Club. She didn’t come from a background of chefs, but was inspired by her mother’s traditional Mexican cooking. Joseph, on the other hand, had been in kitchens all his life because of his father, though a career in food wasn’t his initial plan. He attended business school and worked a non-culinary job, but somehow, he found his way back to the kitchen. He earned his culinary degree from the Sushi Institute of America, led by master sushi chef Katsuya Uechi. The two moved to Las Vegas, where Christina helped open the Katsuya at the SLS hotel, while Joseph worked at Yellowtail, a Japanese fusion restaurant, at the Bellagio. If it wasn’t for the opening of Sierra Fusion they might never have left Las Vegas, as they enjoyed successful and fast-paced careers there; Christina also worked at L’Atelier de Jöel Robuchon at the MGM Hotel, and finished her time in Las Vegas as lead line chef at La Cave at The Wynn.
Though primarily Japanese and Mexican fusion, Sierra Fusion is a fusion restaurant through and through. They don’t like to be tied down to one particular cuisine. Christina, who is partially involved in the creation of pretty much any menu item that isn’t sushi, trained in many different cuisines; so she may, for example, utilize a French technique with a Japanese ingredient. For instance, their addictive blistered shishito peppers? Instead of traditional bonito flakes, they substitute chicharrón, fried pork rind! The Sierra Fusion kitchen is a family, too, though, and many of their staff come from equally diverse backgrounds, so it’s a team effort to constantly collaborate to modernize different cuisines.
I had the pleasure of sampling two of Sierra Fusion’s best-selling offerings: pan-seared scallops with risotto and the spicy citrus salmon roll.
The risotto gets a Japanese twist with the use of miso paste in the stock. The soft, gently savory risotto pillowed the perfectly tender and flavorful exterior of the pan-seared scallops. The apple and fennel brought crunch and also sweetness, which was intensified by the date compote, to the dish. The pancetta balanced this sweetness with a welcome pop of salt. Some people even ask for a doubled portion of the scallops as an entrée, and the kitchen is very accommodating to these requests. I can absolutely see why people ask for this as their main course – it was far too easy to eat and I immediately wanted more!
The spicy citrus salmon was an elevated California roll. The California roll center is made with real blue crab (no imitation here!), topped with salmon sashimi, thinly sliced lemon and micro-cilantro, held together by soy paper. Their sushi rice is a bit different from the norm; Joseph adds some balsamic vinegar alongside the traditional sushi vinegar, so he adds a bit more sugar to offset the stronger acidity of the balsamic. The roll’s shape is more square and more uniform than others’, an aesthetic choice by Joseph. Each piece of the roll was a hefty and satisfying bite of fresh salmon and creamy crab, and the entire roll disappeared very quickly!
Their chef’s pairings every Thursday are luxury dining at a reasonable price – $28 for both the special, off-the-menu entrée and a chef-chosen wine pairing. These dinners are the product of hours of research, and reflect the restaurant’s commitment to innovation with authenticity. Some previous pairings include: mahi mahi and corn chowder with a dry 2016 Curran Grenache Blanc, a classic cioppino seafood stew and grilled fresh baguettes with a 2017 Rabble Rosé, and a Sierra Fusion special tonkotsu ramen with rich 2015 True Myth Cabernet Sauvignon. I hope to return at some point to try these chef’s pairings (and, to be honest, the amazing taco Tuesdays – $2 a taco! – too) with friends! And Sierra Fusion is exactly the kind of place to take your friends and family – they are proud of their family establishment, and all families are welcome! They love seeing kids in the restaurant, and Joseph fondly recounts many a time when a curious toddler has walked by the kitchen and poked their head in!
The fusion, of course, extends to their bar, too. They’ve recently acquired their full liquor license last summer, and their bar manager, Johnny, flexes his creative muscles in the cocktail menu: starting by featuring Japanese whiskeys and using them in their Old-Fashioned. He has worked with the kitchen, too, to formulate unique cocktails, such as the creation of a yuzu margarita in time for National Margarita Day! He’s been having a great time crafting the details, thinking carefully about not just the taste, but also the aromas of their cocktails. Johnny labors over minute subtleties: using brown sugar instead of white, utilizing the oils of an orange peel, and even whipping cream with vanilla extract by hand for a flaming Spanish coffee!
So round up your friends, your family, or both, and enjoy the innovative yet affordable cuisine at Sierra Fusion! The regulars tend to reserve tables fairly far in advance, so consider calling in to make your reservation beforehand.
120 W. Sierra Madre Blvd
Sierra Madre, CA 91024