April 8, 2018 | BITE: My Journal

Zuma Encore

Fresh soft shell crab, the first of the new season,deliciously crisp. I wish we’d ordered two.

          “Japanese But Not Too Japanese” is what I called it two years ago when I first checked out the kitchens at Zuma.  Last week when a friend suggested dinner there, I didn't remember a single thing I had eaten then, just a sense of Japanese by Walt Disney, stone pillars, rock cave walls, granite boulders and distressed iron and steel.

There’s so much energy in the room from the ambition of the design. Or is it about how much it  cost?

The space is even more stunning than I recall, sprawling, vast, clamorous, and full of good-looking people. Just glancing around stirs my excitement, and the menu, with so many categories, is studded with must-haves.

There are multiple kitchens and various counters to show off different schools of cooking.

          We’re five tonight and I’m not in charge of ordering, but I announce a lot of opinions in a firm voice. Eddie, who’s got the server’s ear, agrees with most of my choices. He has to listen to his wife’s fancies too, and our glorious-looking hostess who’s invited us tonight. That’s okay. More is more.

We ease into the evening’s excess with delicate little prawn-and black cod dumplings.

          We’re warned that the kitchen will send out our choices willy-nilly in no special order. As usual these days, the waiter announces that everything is to share and then has to be summoned again and again to bring serving spoons. Of course we can pick up our portions with the top of our chopsticks, but that’s how I get greasy blurs on my camera lens. A spoon is so much easier.

Spicy fried tofu cubes with avocado in salad greens is another warmup starter.


Dana Stoddard shot another closeup of the crab we didn’t order enough of.

          We start with tender little prawn-and-black cod dumplings and the spicy fried tofu with avocado and Japanese herbs in a salad alongside. The frying of the soft shell crab is crisp and clean, primed to dip into its overly polite wasabi mayo. This is my first fresh soft shell of the new season and I wish we’d ordered two. We weigh the option, but more dishes are arriving to distract us.  

The server delivers a tower of bowls, then ladles out fragrant rice with wild mushrooms and Japanese veggies.


I love this rice porridge.

          There is no argument about the hot pot either. Good choice. The waiter trundles up with a tower of bowls and spoons it out -- a wonderful porridge of wild mushrooms and Japanese vegetables, with the faint scent of black truffle.

The salad is a haystack of seaweed with apple, sesame and fried lotus root.

          Surely I am not the only one finding the seaweed salad with apple and fried lotus a little too vinegary. The seared salmon with shiso and black sesame swims weakly in a bathtub of lime and soy with mustard miso. I might like the tuna and salmon tartare, handsomely packed into its wooden frame, much more if it was chopped and not mashed. I drop a plop on the accompanying rice crackers. No kick. Too bad.

I’d like it more if the tuna and salmon tartare were in chopped bits and not a gummy mash.

          In my first BITE on Zuma in 2015, I noted the $10 million supposedly spent on Madison Avenue, Chef Rainer Becker’s formative years in Tokyo and the London flagship’s 10-year triumph. I saluted the money partner, the import mogul Arjun Waney, who decided to open his own Japanese restaurant when he couldn’t get a table at the London Nobu. The Tokyo designer, Noriyoshi Muramatsu, founder of Studio Glitt, designer of all the Zumas, has unleashed any inhibitions about grandiosity he might have had here.

Dana Stoddard’s camera captures the height and sweep on Zuma’s main dining room.

          Eddie says we can’t render a serious judgment on Zuma since we’re not tasting the sushi. But I think five people are too many to do justice to sushi, and anyway, I only want my sushi at the counter in communion with a chef committed to amaze me.

In my earlier visits to Zuma our table shared sushi rolls.

          In my first visits I wasn’t so stubborn and settled for rolls we could share. I found the spicy tuna roll with sesame seeds and sprouts “looking good,” as if that were all that counted, and recommended the spider roll with soft shell crab, chili and wasabi tobiko mayo.

          I’m not thinking about harrowing construction now, just feeling the high of being in this wanton stage set.

These chicken wings from the robata are juicy and a marval of flavors.


The miso corn-fed, oven-roasted chicken arrives whole stretched out on cedar wood.

          Now, as then, the grilled, sake-marinated wings from the robata with sea salt or a squeeze of lime are maybe the best taste of the night, along with the luscious dark meat of the barley-miso oven-roasted chicken sprawled on cedar wood. Our hostess personally delivers a juicy little leg to my plate.

Plump and quickly grilled scallops taste of pickled plum, shiso and mentaiko butter.

          I help myself to one of the Junoesque grilled scallops surrounded with pickled plum, shiso and untoasted sesame seeds. It’s pierced with a couple of sticks, to eat au sauvage-style, meltingly delicate as if barely cooked.

The rib eye arrives in a pyramid of juicy, rare squares with wafu sauce and garlic chips.

          My companions tonight may be disappointed that the rib eye with garlic chips is served cut into small rare squares piled in a pyramid rather than a steak. But I don’t mind: the meat is juicy and fatty -- I don’t have to reveal how many squares I’ve personally dispatched.

Everyone at our table wanted ribs but found these disappointingly dry.

          I wasn’t intending to write about Zuma again. That’s why I didn’t insist we order dessert, the green tea-banana cake with toffee sauce or the exotic fruit with lemon-and-yuzu sorbet. By the end of our greedy marathon I personally feel a bit stoned and can’t imagine eating another bite.

Zuma is like a five ring circus. Something different is happening everywhere.

          But I manage to stand up and, pushing through the aggressive late-night arrivals past the bar toward the exit, I decide I won’t wait so long to come back again. I might round up another collection of competitive eaters, or reserve one of those romantic tables for two near the windows.

281 Madison Avenue between 38th and 39th Streets. 212 544 9862. Monday through Friday lunch 11:45 to 3 pm. dinner 5:30 pm to 11:30 pm. Saturday dinner 5:30 to 11:30 pm. Sunday 5:30 to 10:30 pm.  Lounge and bar Monday through Wednesday 3:30 pm to midnight. Thursday and Friday 3:30 pm to 1 am. Saturday 5 pm to 1 am.

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