eeZ Fusion serves up sushi with flair
by Staff Writer
by Molly Reitter
It is unexpected. eeZ Fusion & Sushi restaurant is nestled in a corner of Birkdale Village, the busy, outdoor, chain, laden mall.
As you enter, it feels like slipping through to another world. The door shuts slowly behind you and as your eyes adjust in the dim light, the cool, calm sea green walls invite you to walk in further.
A bar of dark wood grows out of the floor as if planted there. To the right there is a circle cut of the wall where sushi chefs are hard at work. Head chef Darnell Bennett walks out with a Bible in his hand and a smile on his face. “I’m doing a fast,” he explains. “Don’t mind me if I’m a little loopy.” The fast is for religious reasons, to center him. He is not loopy at all, just open, happy and clearly in love with his job.
Bennett’s parents and grandparents all loved to cook and family time was often spent in the kitchen. He also learned the value of fresh ingredients at his grandparent’s farm in Wilkesboro. He went to UNC Charlotte as an art major, but soon dropped out to join the U.S. Navy. His first job out of the Navy was at CiCi’s Pizza where he met franchise owner Marcus Hall.
Bennett was accepted to Charlotte’s Johnson & Wales University in the College of Culinary Arts. Unfortunately, his financial aid fell through and subsequently Hall convinced him to come work for him. Hall had just closed Zyng Asian Grill, a franchise restaurant out of Canada, and opened up eeZ Fusion & Sushi in the same location.
eeZ Fusion & Sushi regular diner Gary Shannon, of Concord, stops by and gives Bennett a fish. Not a real fish, rather a flat, intricate, metal piece of art. An artist had given the fish to Shannon and he thought it would be perfect for the chef.
“He gives me art all the time,” said Bennett beaming. “I’m going to put it in my kitchen.”
The exchange between the two men is warm and friendly.
“These customers and staff are like my brothers and sisters,” said Bennett confirming the familial feeling.
Shannon can’t say enough about Bennett’s culinary skills.
“He is my favorite chef,” he said. “His cooking is incredible and his attitude is even better.”
The beauty of eeZ Fusion & Sushi is that it has something for everyone, but the dishes are done in a way that skews from the norm. For example, the fish tacos are not the typical grilled fish topped with salsa and served in a tortilla. The fresh fish is tempura-battered, lightly fried and then served in a grilled flour tortilla with a topping of cilantro Sriracha cream sauce. There are also sushi rolls featuring filet mignon.
“We are encouraged to be creative with our food here,” said Bennett. “I’ve never worked at a place where you can be so imaginative with the food. And the atmosphere is so laid back.”
The success of the eeZ Fusion & Sushi concept helped generate the creative food vibe of its sister restaurant, The Cowfish Sushi Burger bar at South Park Mall. The two restaurants recently teamed up to cater an event for local musicians The Avett Brothers. Bennett was surprised how many friends they had in common.
And yet another fusion comes together – musicians and chefs, doctors and art, filet mignon and sushi. Proof that the best mixtures are often the most unexpected.
“We all come from the same place and know all the same people,” he said. “Yet we had never met before.”