March 30, 2015 | BITE: My Journal

 Zuma: Japanese But Not Too Japanese

My favorite dish at Zuma on all three visits: Chicken wings with sake and lime from the robata.
My favorite dish at Zuma on all three visits: Chicken wings with sake and lime from the robata.

           There’s a ton of confidence invested in Zuma, New York. Several tons. Workers had to shore up the floor right down to the bedrock below to accommodate Thai stone pillars, rock cave walls, granite boulders and distressed iron and steel. It’s a stunning design, meant to evoke Manhattan, an homage to our town’s energy the press release suggests, $10 million worth I was told.

Sorry, it was too dark to capture the soaring space. Best my camera could do was the bar.

           Obviously, it’s too big and too expensive on its Madison Avenue corner to fail. And why shouldn’t it shimmer with confidence? Inspired by Chef Rainer Becker’s many years in Tokyo, the London flagship Zuma is a thirteen-year triumph -- critical and financial -- and has already spawned outposts in Hong Kong, Dubai, Istanbul, Miami, Bangkok, Datça Peninsula and Abu Dhabi. Useful research before braving our notoriously challenging island.  

It took a while to persuade the kitchen to send us sea urchin in its spiky shell (not on the menu.)

           And Zuma’s world conquest hasn’t stopped. The money partner, the import mogul Arjun Waney, who decided he would open his own Japanese restaurant when he realized he could never get a table at constantly-booked London Nobu, has gone on to create other global restaurant cash machines on his own.

If you’re lucky, you might walk in to find a seat at the robata counter. I’d be willing to try.

           Now we can claim a seat at our own Zuma’s sushi bar, or settle with a friend or two at the counter fronting the robata grill. Slatted steel booths are perfect for four. There are spacious two-tops nestled between granite columns. We can ride the glass elevator, bogeying to the amplified rock, to an upstairs dining room.  Or be six as we are tonight, in the main room at a monkey wood table -- “reclaimed wood,” the manager is quick to note.

I can’t attest to the level of talent at the sushi bar because I was too busy eating at a series of tables.

           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. A row of illuminated openwork lanterns in the windows along Madison are supposed to evoke the buildings that make our unique skyline. No joke. It’s dark and noisy, but truly stunning.

Raw salmon and tuna mashed to a sticky paste is not my idea of seafood tartare.

           Still, you will probably be disappointed here if you’re a Masa regular and Shuko is your idea of relaxed Japanese tradition. Serious aficionados of serious Japanese food might grow cranky. Zuma is not trying to compete with Brushstroke or Hirohisa or Kurumazushi. Don’t expect exotic kaiseki or four versions of yellowtail sashimi building to a crescendo.

The frying of soft shell crab is crisp and clean. I had it twice with mizuna and wasabi mayo twice.

           Zuma is Japanese, but not scarily Japanese. “It’s not traditional Japanese,” Sven Koch, the company’s chief executive has said. “Japanese is too subtle. We have a European, Western sensibility.” It’s an upscale izakaya: a Japanese pub in a swaggering stage set. Modest but in a thrillingly immodest way.

At an early dinner, the fried calamari with lime was slightly soggy and very bland.

           You can eat well enough here and get high on well-dressed cocktails, $14 to $20, or sake if you prefer. Or shochu or a $48 flute of Krug. Zuma’s mai tai doesn’t come with a paper umbrella that folds. Even better, it has two brandied cherries on a toothpick, chewy dried pineapple and a slice of dehydrated orange (I enjoyed eating it) and too much ice. It’s a big drink and it lasted forever one evening.

The spicy tuna roll with sesame seeds and sprouts – if looking good was all that counted.

           But you must not mind the raucous din – the volume of the music suggests that Zuma’s marketing wizards are angling for millennials. They come in all sizes and notions of appropriate dress via Uber and tunnels. You need to ignore the roar of the traders at the next table chugalugging their whatever it is. And forget about ordering in courses. Dishes come willy-nilly as they’re ready -- for the kitchen’s convenience, not yours.

The dynamite spider roll with softshell crab, chili and wasabi tobiko mayo is definitely worth repeating.

           At an early dinner, a friend and I loathed the sticky paste of tuna and salmon tartars side by side in a handsome wooden presentation with lotus blossom chips. But it wouldn’t be fair to hold the kitchen responsible in the tenth day. By the time we turned to consider the robata choices, we weren’t hungry anymore. Even so, I ordered the chicken wings with sake, sea salt and lime anyway. They were the best dish of the evening.

Nobody seemed to appreciate the fried tofu cubes with avocado as much as I do.

           They were also the best dish I tasted a month later when I returned with Japanese food snobs who deplored the under-reach. I was quite happy with the fried tofu cubes and avocado that they disdained. Maybe the salmon roll was a mistake, but the spicy Hamachi roll and the handsome spider maki with fried soft shell crab quickly disappeared.

Crushed cashews and scallion crown falling-off-the-bone glazed spare ribs.

           Glazed baby back ribs with cashews don’t have much to do with Japan, but izakaya fare can be anything. I like my ribs a little chewier, though most people think falling-off-the-bone is a virtue. The kitchen didn’t seem to understand our request for sea urchin in the shell. But at last an impressive pile of uni arrived in its spiky armor.

I’d never seen a prawn this large before. I thought it might be a declawed lobster.

           A jumbo tiger prawn with yuzu pepper ($38), as large as a lobster, was a gift of the kitchen. Most of it disappeared quickly, but it could have been lusher if less cooked.

           The waiter that night was nimble, fast, racing all over the room. He seemed especially to enjoy dishing up the rice hot pot with wild mushrooms and Japanese vegetables, shaving on slices of truffle sent as a gift by the house. My fussbudgets enjoyed that too. I was determined to taste those wings again. Josephine was dubious, full already, but one bite inspired another. Soon a double order had disappeared.

The waiter himself dished out the rice hot pot with wild vegetables and shaved gift truffle on top.

           We let Henry G. order dessert because it’s so important to him. The green tea cake and Zuma mocha bamboo he chose came as part of a carousel of desserts – another gift. Fresh fruit stood up like primitive skyscrapers.  I can’t recall if any New York restaurant ever served rambutan. I ate two. And the mocha “bamboo” had green cookie stalks planted in it. They looked like asparagus.

I loved the melon and the mangoustine and cookies looking like asparagus on the mocha dessert.

           As with all hot new restaurants these days, Zuma quickly declared itself booked days ahead. Calling anonymously, I could only claim a table at 5:30 or 9 – the nasty dining out plague all my friends complain about. Confession: I got the direct line to the manager who produced a table for five at 7:30 for me and friends who are demanding, but not devotees of serious sushi bars or Japanese esoterica.

Alaskan King crab, yet another seduction from the house, was drowning in ponzu-lime butter.

           I didn’t necessarily expect too much attention or a parade of gifts from the kitchen, but that’s how it went, starting with what tasted like Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks and climaxing with Alaskan king crab smothered in too much ponzu lime butter.

           A seemingly terrified tenderfoot was dispatched by the bar to tell me they could not make a classic mai tai, only a Zuma mai tai. I assured him that was what I wanted. Two of my friends, regulars at the London Zuma, shared the ordering.

I notice most of us must have the corn even when it’s clearly not in season. Here with shiso butter.

           I only allotted myself one leg of meticulously-fried soft shell crab so my pals could share the small meaty middle. Again, the sake-grilled wings from the robata were a hit. They didn’t need the accompanying sea salt or a squeeze of lime but that citric squirt boosted flavor. Zucchini tends to be waterlogged and bland, but these marinated slices from the grill were excellent too, better than the sweet potatoes. Even out-of-season corn chunks vanished.

Is tempura batter meant to be tasteless? The frying is splendid but I like prawns better in fritto misto.

           Tiger prawn tempura, though crisp and notably clean, had no flavor at all until dragged through the soy dipping sauce. I longed for the voluptuousness of Nobu’s black cod as I sampled Zuma’s firmer version. But the luscious dark meat of the barley miso oven-roasted chicken on cedar wood more than made up the difference.

Beef chunks on skewers from the robata are much more complex than the $42 rib eye.

           For me, beef chunks on skewers with shishito peppers and smoked chili soy proved to be infinitely richer and more delicious than the $42 prime rib eye my friend chose from the “Robata Beef” offerings. The thrilling high of intoxicating meat flavors filling your mouth in one bite was sacrificed by the chefs cutting it into tiny, too-thin pieces.

Barley miso marinated and oven roasted chicken on a cedar plank a must, along with the sake’d wings.

           “We don’t know anyone in London,” the wife of the Zuma devotees noted, “so we don’t get fussed over, but the service must be good because I don’t really notice it. They don’t have this unbearable disco noise. And when you taste the meat you really taste it because the surface is bigger.”

Steak, rare as requested, is cut so small and thin, there’s no thrill of mouth feel.

           Those are the Zuma chronicles. Figure $100 a person or more if you’re free-ranging the menu, depending on what you drink. I would go back now that I know what I like. You can decide if it’s worth the booking hurdle. Or step into the bar or lounge. Put your name on a list for the robata counter and have a strong drink and a snack while you wait.

261 Madison Avenue between 38th and 39th Streets. 212 544 9862. Monday through Saturday lunch 11:45 to 3 pm. dinner 6 pm to 11 pm. Lounge Monday though Saturday dinner 6 to 11 pm.  Bar and snacks 5:30 pm to midnight. Closed Sunday.


Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2015. All rights reserved.

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