Zuma – First Bite
New York is an intimidating place to open a restaurant… to say the least. Even the most celebrated chefs in the world hesitate before dropping a restaurant in Manhattan. And many never dare.
I don’t blame them really. When you have so much terrific food at your fingertips, you can be as picky as you’d like. We’re tough critics because we can be, so it’s a big deal when a successful chain decides to open up shop on New York turf. Such is the case with London-based group, Zuma, which just opened its ninth outpost on Madison Avenue near 38th Street.
I had been to the uber popular Zuma in Miami and enjoyed my meal there. Maybe it was the combination of the sun, the scene, and sake, but it was laidback and fun. Restaurateur Rainer Becker has a knack for drawing celebrities to his larger-than-life Japanese eateries all over the world, including Dubai, Istanbul and Bangkok, so it’s a good bet that eaters will jockey for a table at Becker’s newest Zuma.
When I stepped foot inside their new Manhattan location, all I could think about is how much money they had sunk into the buildout for this cavernous, two-story space, bedecked with huge granite stones, steal and wood beams, and a glassed-in wine cellar. If that’s not enough, this mammoth spot is divided into several sections, which includes a main dining room, a robata grill counter, sushi bar, and cocktail bar.
As the layout of the restaurant suggests, Zuma is a Japanese izakaya that seems like it’s trying to be everything to everyone. Feel like settling in for a serious sushi omakase? Zuma’s got that. Craving something from the robata grill, like Pork Belly Skewers with mustard miso or Chicken Wings with Lime? They’ve got that covered, too. The menu even features several kinds of grilled meats, including Wagyu with wasabi, if you want more of a steakhouse experience. Oh, and if you’re appetite leans more mainstream, Japanese (the likes of Nobu’s Miso Cod and Rock Shrimp Tempura), you’ll find plenty of crowd-pleasing hits, including Edamame, Salmon Teriyaki, and Fried Soft Shell Crab with Wasabi Mayo.
I can appreciate easy going, modern Japanese on American turf, but I have my limits. When you order Alaskan King Crab grilled on the robata, I expect traditional, robata-style crab, seasoned with a little sea salt and lemon. But what arrived from the kitchen was Crab, slathered (and I mean slathered) in a thick, mucky lime butter sauce that swallowed up the poor crustacean. The Sweet Potato on the grill is sopped in Teriyaki and the Chicken Wings are a tad greasy.
You’d be wise to stick with sushi because the quality of the fish is surprisingly excellent, though I can’t say the same about the service. The server spilled my husband’s cocktail as he set it down, uttering, “Watch out. That glass is slippery,” before disappearing to the bar. Did he return to clean up the cranberry-colored spill so my husband wouldn’t have to drag his sleeve through it? Nope. An did the caviar we splurged for with the Scallop Tartar show up? Yes… about fifteen minutes after the Scallop Tartar. (No joke.) So we were left to grapple with the dilemma of whether we should wait it out or forget the fish eggs.
But I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you just how good the Wagyu Beef Sushi is. (It’s terrific.) Diced raw Wagyu is poised over rice, wrapped in daikon, and crowned with a fat sliver of black truffle. Two pieces for 24 bucks and it’s wholly worth it. So is the Cut Fatty Tuna and Scallion Roll with sweet, delicate tuna that melts on your tongue. Though I do wish they hadn’t seared the Uni Sushi, topped with Barley Miso and a Garlic Chip, because it would’ve been much better off in its raw, natural state. For dessert, I say forgo the so-so Shiro Miso Creme Brulee for the tasty Banana Green Tea Cake with Banana Toffee Sauce while you admire the sky high ceilings and posh decor.
Zuma reminds me of all of those loungey, larger-than-life eateries, like Buddakan and Hakkasan, which are both alive and still kicking. The issue with mega restaurants is they don’t feel intimate, and more importantly, they don’t usually wow where food is concerned. Sure, the sushi better than it has to be, but I just get the sense that they can’t decide who they want to be. Call me a snob, but I’ll pass on fashionable food that’s a little too eager to please… everyone.