Zoom Zoom Zuma
There was a time, not too long ago, when going to Benihana was considered a night out for fancy Japanese cuisine. It is hard to believe now, but just around a decade in the past, it was less about the product and more about the tricks. Talented chefs were overshadowed by creative knife skills; it was more important to flip a piece of meat in the air than it was to cook it properly.
Thankfully, as American palettes have evolved, the food has now become the primary reason to go Japanese. (Not that there’s is anything wrong with Benihana, it’s just unfair for a novelty like that to represent an entire culture of cuisine.) In Las Vegas, the turning point was in 2008 when Raku opened. Run by the genius Mitsuo Endo, the Japanese robata grill introduced gastronomical offerings of such high quality that its ever skyrocketing popularity caused an entire plaza of restaurants to be built around it.
More recently, The Strip seems to have taken a nod from Raku, and Chinatown in general, with high-end Japanese places opening more frequently than before. In the fall, Iron Chef Morimoto brought his world-renowned cookery to MGM Grand. It has deservedly earned rave reviews (including by this writer).
Just last month at The Cosmopolitan, two Asian eateries opened; The David Chang led Momofuku, which features takes on foods from many different Asian countries including Japan, and, to much less fanfare, the modern Japanese stalwart Zuma. However, don’t count out Zuma, a brand that might not be as famous in the United States as its competition down the hall, but one that has established a worldwide presence that includes outposts everywhere from New York to the Datça Peninsula to Hong Kong.
The concept was created by award-winning chef Rainer Becker, whose original home is Germany but who found his culinary home in Japan. Becker spent six years working in Tokyo, immersing himself in Japanese cooking, before opening his first Zuma in London in 2002.
The first thing one notices when entering the Las Vegas branch of Zuma is the stunning woodwork all around the restaurant. Designer Noriyoshi Muramatsu has outdone himself here with an open space that feels unlike any other restaurant on The Strip. The long, sturdy wooden bar, finished with Thai wood, is a showpiece.
A creative list of cocktails ($16) features unique takes on familiar flavors. Try the Wasabi Mule (Tito’s vodka, lime, homemade wasabi ginger beer) or a Japanese Old Fashioned (Suntory toki whisky, sugar syrup bitters and handcrafted ice) to experience new versions of old favorites. For those looking for even more adventurous cocktails, there’s Fish In A Bag, which features Tanqueray gin, dehydrated oranges, green tea, tonic and is served with a literal (albeit edible) fish swimming in a clear plastic bag. I’m not sure why. Or if you want to go just a bit more subtle, the Japanese Penicillin is an amalgam of Suntory toki whiskey, honey, ginger, yuzu and egg whites. While no live animal is presented as side decoration, it does come on top of barrel stave smoke which adds a beautiful smell and, duh, smokiness to the drink.
There is also a second bar located inside the main bar that focuses only on martinis.
The same type of care is put into the cuisine. Once inside the large dining space, there are multiple options just for seating. Besides the energized main dining area, patrons can sit at the sushi or robata counters to intimately watch chefs work their magic close up, or in the raised restaurant and booth area which feels like its own private space but still part of the grander scheme. (Of course, if it’s private dining rooms you want, they have those, too).
The three kitchens - sushi, main, and robata - work constantly and harmoniously. It’s the last one that offers the most thrills to those who want to immerse themselves in their food being prepared. Robata, or robatayaki, is a cooking style that is hundreds of years old, developed by fishermen in Northern Japan, where items on skewers are cooked slowly over charcoal. When done correctly, it maximizes the flavors and textures of each ingredient and is as good as any type of cooking in the world.
Food is served izakaya style, which means shared plates, but plates constantly coming with new items throughout the meal. The sushi is as good as expected, but for real tastes of the ocean, start with the cold dishes section. Hamachi usuzukuri pirikara, ninniku gake ($19) is yellowtail sashimi, a dish that every restaurant - Japanese or otherwise - seems to find mandatory to serve today. This version is better than most thanks to the high quality of the fish and the finishing elements of green chili relish, ponzu and memorable pickled garlic. Sake no tataki ($18) is a smash hit featuring lightly seared salmon dressed to the nines with shiso, lime-soy, some very prevalent sesame, and mustard miso.
From the tempura section, ko ebi no tempura yuzu togarashi mayo ($20) is the brand’s take on Japanese fried rock shrimp, here flavored with green pea wasabi, lime, and chili tofu. It’s a dish that is better in concept than execution.
One concept that needs no improvement is yaki toumoro koshi ($12) from the robata grill. Japanese street corn seems to be all the rage lately, and this iteration, with shiso lime butter and ichimi ground dried chili pepper, easily proves why. The corn, which is sous vided before it hits the grill, is juicy and easily holds up to the aggressive seasonings. Our waiter accidentally brought us an extra order. We didn’t complain.
The next “wow factor” plate is gindara no saikyo miso yaki ($37) from the signature dishes section. Black cod is marinated for 3 - 4 days in saikyo miso, a sweet miso from Kyoto that is low on salt and features a bigger rice than soybean content. It is then wrapped in a hoba leaf - the leaf of a Japanese whitebark magnolia - and by the time it is finished cooking, the fish is perfectly moist and fully imparted with the sweet miso flavor. There are many marinated cod dishes around Las Vegas, but I doubt you’ll find one better than this.
Sticking with the signature dishes, rib eye no daikon ponzu fumi ($39) once again shows just how elegant preparing food on the robata grill can be. 8 oz of prime rib eye is cooked with wafu sauce, a base dressing of soy sauce, rice vinegar, mirin, and vegetable oil, plus some variables, and is served with crispy garlic chips and shaved leeks. It doesn’t matter if there are two or ten in your party, there won’t be anything left on this plate when it’s over.
The best bite I tried at Zuma was also a robata grill specialty. Yaki taraba gani ($36) from the skewers section is Alaskan king crab with ponzu lime butter and charred lemon. It is everything right about robatayaki. Technique driven by simplicity to bring out the most potential in each ingredient. The crab shines through in every mouthful. The ponzu lime butter gives both sweetness and tartness to the crustacean as it drips out of the crab’s shell and the charred lemon (in our case, lime) adds a thoughtful punch of acid to the plate. It is a truly outstanding dish. This is Zuma reaching its highest level.
Our dessert was a bombardment of sweets, with mixed success. Chawanmushi is usually a savory offering, but here the egg custard was spiked with mango and papaya and covered in a passion fruit foam. It is an exotic fruit orgy. The coconut and green tea ice cream, while nothing out of the ordinary, are good versions of what they are supposed to be. The milk chocolate parfait, however, could be axed completely. Served with vanilla marshmallow, whisky jellies, shaved chocolate and gold flakes, it was not only overkill but seemingly from a different time than most items at this ultra-modern restaurant. More fresh fruit like the berries and lychees that also came on the platter would have been fine, or they could have been utilized in a more creative and effective fashion and replaced the parfait altogether.
Or maybe they could find a way to get dessert going on the robata grill. Now that would be something truly worthy of Zuma’s brand.
Sliced yellowtail with green chilli relish, ponzu and pickled garlic - hamachi usuzukuri pirikara, ninniku gake