Stepping into Zuma‘s Manhattan location feels like a full-body transportation. One minute you’re walking down Madison Ave amidst flocks of selfie-snapping tourists, the next you’re being seated in a chic, secluded dining room that washes away all that big-city hustle-and-bustle. Everything about Zuma leads to a refined dining experience, from its calming ambiance to a vivaciously attentive staff that never leaves any glass empty, but all that is lost if the food doesn’t please. Seafood in New York City can sometimes be a tricky play – good thing Zuma is never a gamble. If you want authentic, up-scale Japanese cuisine, look no further than 261 Madison Avenue.
From sushi to sashimi to a succulent cut of grilled Wagu beef, the chefs at Zuma wield their knives with the precision of master samurai warriors. Thin slices of Yellowtail are almost paper thin, but still burst with freshness and flavor. No jagged edges or sloppy craftsmanship – each cube of raw fish came out perfectly sliced, only to emphasize the attention Zuma pays to culinary artistry.
Dishes are staged spectacles served in perfect vessels, whether that be on a wood plank over some giant ice bath or a slab of stone that accentuates the food’s natural color schemes. Digestion begins with our eyes, and you’ll have no problems devouring the visual feast laid in front of you.
For my meal, Zuma prepared their Signature Omakase Experience. This means each dish was selected specifically by the chef that night, based on whatever products were available. Plate after plate came out until my gut was about to burst, as my meal became an international journey told through the palette.
Tempura turned to familiar sushi rolls, followed by tender beef, decedent lobster and a dessert platter for the ages. A saki sommelier made sure to pair any new drink with whatever was currently on my table, to ensure there’d be no clashing flavor profiles on this night. From top-to-bottom, Zuma is a tight-knit operation that was running like clockwork from my perspective. You aren’t just a patron here, you’re a guest. What a nice feeling that is.
Alright, time to get to the goods. Overall, as stated already, my Omakase menu had VERY few flaws. I’m not even sure there were any flaws, just some dishes winning my heart quicker than others. A wide array of techniques evoked flavors from sweet to savory, crisp to subtle, showcasing expected staples with Zuma’s endearing flair to spice things up a bit. Let’s take a trip down memory lane and cover what found its way to my table…
Steamed Baby Spinach Salad: A little mound of green goodness covered in sesame, this was a simple yet tasty dish, with the sesame creaminess almost giving off a peanut-buttery flavor – that’s a good thing.
Lobster No Tempura (with spicy ponzu and wasabi mayonnaise): Not my favorite preparation of lobster on the night, but a solid starter to share for those in the mood for a light, crispy tempura batter encasing fresh lumps of lobster meat.
Ebi No Tempura: (rock shrimp with lime and chili mayonnaise): This was my preference of the starter tempura dishes, accompanied by a cool yet spicy sauce. Same description of the tempura batter, except this time it’s hiding a juicy shrimp inside. Absolutely love the pairing of sauces, making for a must-order appetizer.
Age Watarigani (fried softshell crab with mizuna, wasabi mayonnaise): For this dish we got a whole soft shell crab slathered in tempura and paired with Zuma’s familiar wasabi mayo. Pull apart and devour as necessary. Again, the Rock Shrimp was my favorite tempura dish, but this crab came in a close second.
Suzuki No Ozashimi (seabass sashimi with yuzu, salmon roe and truffle oil): How sadistic is it that I love the popping of roe in my mouth when biting down onto the squishy little balls? I mean, we all know what it is, yet we adorn our sashimi slices with the orange orbs almost as if we’re taunting…sorry, getting off topic. Fresh fish, earthy truffle oil, roe adds an additional pop – tasty as expected.
Gyu No Tataki To Truffle (sliced seared beef with pickled daikon and fresh truffle dressing): The daikon itself is a mildly flavored radish, so its usage is more for a crunch factor. Any flavor comes from the beefy roll-up and pickled sting, which mixes with the muffling nature of the truffle dressing. Compared to all the seafood you’re eating, this is a nice bite to complement other similar tastes.
Salmon Tartare (served with seaweed rice crackers): The bowl for two is a bit small, only offering a few tastes of the tartare. That said, whatever bites you do get, you’ll savor tremendously. The tartar is both smooth and rich, loaded with the natural flavors of fresh seafood without any funkiness. So tremendously well done, this was my favorite dish of the night until a declaration I’ll make shortly.
Zuma Nigiri Zushi (selection of zuma style nigiri): Out comes this massive bowl of ice with a nigiri-covered plank on top, a bit more physically imposing than it ends up being. You’ll get a sample of both straight fish cuts (salmon/tuna/etc.) and actual nigiri, but this is more about artwork. No dish lets the chefs flash their knife skills more, as each edge is perfectly trimmed and pridefully served.
Pirikara Hamachi Maki (spicy yellowtail roll with serrano pepper and wasabi mayo): Here’s the sushi you’re more familiar with, each piece dotted with a garnish of wasabi mayo and hot pepper. Not overly spicy, and leagues better than any of that pre-made superstore sushi you’ve been sneaking during lunch breaks.
Hotate No Ume Shiso Mentaiko Yaki (grilled scallops with pickled plum, shiso and mentaiko butter): Best scallop I’ve ever had. Hands down. The zip and zing is achieved by its sauce, but the scallop itself is sublime perfection. Tender, buttery richness that your fork goes through like an angel’s cloud. I still have dreams about this scallop, and that doesn’t worry me in the least.
Lobster No Oven Yaki (roasted lobster with shizo-ponzu butter): Pure decadence. Healthy chunks of lobster are grilled then placed back into the shell, only to be drowned in a drool-worthy butter exploding with flavor. This is the kind of sauce old-school kings would have running down their chins, after sucking every last drop from the hollow lobster shell.
Gyuhire Sumibiyaki Karami Sauce Zuke (spicy beef tenderloin with sesame, red chili and sweet soy): This one comes out still mooing, which proves that Zuma knows how to heat their meat. There’s not much “spicy” to this dish, which is fine because the sweetness of the soy shines brightest. It’s prime beef paired with soy and sesame, as any proper Japanese steakhouse would present.
Grilled Asparagus: Oh look, vegetables! Hunky stalks of asparagus are grilled and dressed up with a soy sweetness. Be healthy. Get SOME green on your table.
Special Dessert Platter: Another behemoth of a container holding Zuma’s bevy of sugary riches, from sorbet to a chocolate caramel cake with edible Zuma logo placement. Exotic fruits and ice cream offer variety, but you’re devouring the cake first and foremost. Moist, chocolatey dreaminess that oozes molten insides once punctured. Jon Favreau’s character in Chef would certainly be proud of this eruption-worthy climax.
If you couldn’t tell, Zuma won me over even with its simplest dishes. One single scallop changed my world that night, as my pants size increased slowly but surely with each new dish presented. You should be aware that the restaurant is a bit on the pricier side, so this is best used as a great location when you’re trying to impress, or if someone else is footing the bill. Hey, everyone deserves to feel classy every now and again, right?
Delicious food cooked with a real sense of passion and presented beautifully, Zuma is the perfect place to embrace your more sophisticated side, especially when hunger is in the hands of tried-and-true professionals.
All photos by Liz Swezey.