At Zuma, the new midtown outpost of the luxe, expensive Japanese fusion chain, someone tall and muscular throws open the door, welcoming you as if you own the place. From the moment you arrive in the cavernous, '90s-style industrial-chic dining room, you aren’t meant to lift a finger.
Does the beautiful fresh tofu presentation seem a little too complicated, what with the piles of minced ginger, barley miso, sour plum pulp, and other seasonings? Don’t worry! Someone will spoon it all into your bowl for you, scraping at the soft tofu aggressively with a wooden paddle, like a parent transferring the leftovers to Tupperware after dinner. (You half expect Zuma’s staff to baby-bird the stuff directly into your mouth, but things won’t go that far. The restaurant wants you to feel pampered, but hey, you still have to chew.)
Rainer Becker and Arjun Waney opened the very first Zuma in London back in 2002—a model in swish, expensive Japanese small plates that could essentially be duplicated anywhere in the world. When Zuma opened its doors in Miami in 2010, it was the first location for the chain in the U.S., but Zumas were already in Hong Kong, Dubai, and Istanbul, drawing wealthy, international diners for sushi in a clubby atmosphere.
The New York location is on Madison Avenue, close to Grand Central Station, and it’s what they call a scene. If you’re waiting at the bar for your table (and you usually have to, no matter how on time you are for your reservation), it can be fun to listen through the industrial metal tubes that connect to the host stand as Zuma’s staff gently describes diners around you, perhaps not realizing you can hear it:
“The kind of a big guy with glasses and gray hair in a suit? With the guy in a purple tie? Their table is ready.”
“The tall lady in a white leather vest over a white turtleneck? With the big guy in a suit? Their table is ready.”
The look may be '90s excess and Sex and the City, but yes, the clientele skews toward big guys in suits. At lunchtime, they take over.
Service is polite and friendly, though sometimes passive-aggressively so. “We look forward to welcoming you from 7 to 9,” the host says over the phone when confirming a reservation, putting a clear expiration date on your welcome. This isn’t the only time the hospitality seems put-on. When the dining room is busy, the waiters sometimes drop the food and bolt. That might be fine at a raucous little bar where you’re not paying for service, but at Zuma, where the lobster tempura cost $64 on a recent evening, it can feel cold and dismissive.
The tempura arrived in the hollowed-out body of a lobster. It looked pretty dramatic, like something from a crustacean's darkest nightmare, but it tasted quite plain and greasy, overcooked and anonymous. Beef tataki wrapped around fresh herbs was livelier and more delicate, but the black truffle slices on top were crumbly and dry, as if freeze-dried for a safe voyage to outer space. And why was the mackerel sushi sitting in an inch of sugary vinegar? No matter the quality of the fish, it’s not pleasant to eat this way—cold and dripping like a feathery mop just out of the bucket.
In fact, a lot of the food is slathered and smothered, too heavily seasoned. Take the beautiful little chicken, covered in so much sticky barley miso that it coats your mouth. Or the pork belly skewers: wands of caramelized fat enrobed in a sweet and salty gloop. It can be a bit much.
But if you order well, avoiding the more over-the-top presentations, you can sit down to enjoy the show over a perfectly nice dinner at Zuma. One of the best things I had was a simple rib eye cooked over the grill—a smart setup in the back of the dining room (with bar seating among the stacks of extra plates). The meat was fatty and delicious, cooked beautifully, and well-seasoned, with a simple glaze of its own juice.
Still, the food arrives randomly. “We serve everything as it’s ready, Izakaya style,” the waiter will tell you when you order. Is that really a style, or just an excuse for the lack of an expediting system in the massive restaurant? (Zuma seats 100 downstairs, in the main dining room, and more at the sushi counter, the Japanese grill station, and up the suspended steel staircase in the packed, noisy lounge that serves the full menu.)
Desserts can be a little indistinct, but I didn’t mind the tall, green tea cake under a crown of banana slices. The shell of sugar on the miso-spiked creme brulee was brutishly thick, though. The strangest dessert of all at Zuma is the bamboo chocolate. It looks like a dead plant in a pot and tastes like one, too.
There’s some creamy stuff in that pot—and a tall crispy thing stuck in the middle, meant to emulate a plant. It’s unclear what the ingredients are, as the whole thing is so relentlessly bland. The dark chocolate crumble on top of the ice cream is almost completely flavorless. It's dry, like the scorched earth in an apocalyptic movie that forces the hero to hop a spaceship to find another world for us to live in—we’ve made such a mess of this one. It is, I’m told, Zuma’s most popular dessert.
Zuma is at 261 Madison Avenue (Midtown); + 1 (212) 544-9862 or zumarestaurant.com
Rating: 1/4 Stars (Good)
What to Order: Fresh tofu with ginger-miso dressing ($12), and ask for a spoon; Prawn and cod dumplings ($15); Rib eye steak ($36); Japanese sweet potato ($9); Seared salmon sushi ($14); Green tea cake ($14)
Who’s Next to You: Handsome bald men with shiny heads and shiny suits; Well-dressed families with teenage children; Power lunchers; Celebrity stalkers
Soundtrack: Thumping dance party elevator music, turned up throughout the evening. Sometimes it sounds like the theme song from Sex and the City, but that’s just the power of suggestion.
Need to Know: It looks like there’s nothing tonight, or any night, on OpenTable. Call the restaurant directly, and you’ll find there’s plenty of room for later in the week.