By Sarah Juggins,
Zuma is a contemporary Japanese restaurant with one unique selling point, as Sarah Juggins found out to her carnivorous delight.
Zuma in London is one of a family of five contemporary Japanese cuisine restaurants that espouses the izakaya-style of dining – that is, sharing platters of food with large groups of people, eating the assortment of food in no particular order.
I visited the Knightsbridge branch of the restaurant with a large group of friends and some seriously high expectations after reading many of the reviews. “Stylish”, “shiny glamour,” and “set against a moody urban backdrop” were just some of the comments on the Square Meal review page.
The menu itself was wide ranging, and there were some eye-catching dishes on offer. But my group of fellow diners were interested in one thing and one thing only – the Wagyu beef.
So we ignored the lobster tempura, the moromi miso marinated baby chicken, the tuna in chilli daikon and ponzu sauce. We even turned up our noses at the sea bass with truffle oil. All we wanted was the beer-fed, daily-massaged bovine delights that are the specialty of this restaurant.
Life of Old Riley
So what is so special about Wagyu? Well, first it is about the rearing. These cattle are treated better than royalty. For the last two years of their short but pampered lives, they are fed nothing but top quality grain, washed down with sake, beer or red wine, depending upon which region of the world they are reared in. Some farmers have even hired musicians to relax their stock through a rendition of Mozart. The result is a special type of beef, where the fat is marbled within the meat instead of around the edge of the cut, as is the case with regular steaks.
It was once the case that, a little like Champagne originating from its namesake area in France, you could only get Wagyu beef from the Japanese area of Kobe. The breed was Wagyu, but it was always referred to as Kobe beef. But, as the fight for space on the land intensified, it was clear that the Kobe area could never support enough beef to provide for world demand. Smart livestock farmers from Australia and South America realized that these cattle were potential gold mines, and Wagyu beef began to be reared away from its homeland.
Now, beef connoisseurs can enjoy Wagyu beef across the world, and breeders are enjoying a windfall for their investment as high-end restaurants, such as Zuma, have it on their menu, marketing it as their specialty dish.
So back to the restaurant under review.
Zuma, in the heart of London’s West End, has a stylish décor, and certainly as you approach the entrance, you begin to anticipate a culinary experience. The decorative flame outside the door, the atmospheric lighting and the large, rustically-chic wooden benches and tables all shout “understated class.”
The edamame bean pre-meal appetisers were delicious, but the speed of drinks service was almost too quick. There was an extensive wine menu, and by the time we had finished reading about the £2,000 bottle of Rothschild red, we were almost ambushed into choosing a Billecart Salmon pink rose champagne.
The starters were lovely. The squid in light batter with green chillies was delicious and very well cooked. The miso and avocado salad was fragrant and delightful. And for the size of the portions, it was very reasonably priced.
The main act arrived on a large slate plate, the rib eye steak sliced into perfectly sized slivers of meat. The secret to Wagyu beef lies in the fat content – the marbling of the beef – and my portion was absolutely spot-on. There was a very thin, lightly browned layer of fat on top of the beef, and then the lean meat had a depth of flavor from the fat running through it that is often missing from the leaner beef we are encouraged to eat on a daily basis.
The greatest quality of this beef, however, was the texture. “Melt in the mouth” is an overused cliché that is not always appropriate for something as durable as meat, but it is difficult to use another phrase that can describe it. You pop a piece of Wagyu beef into your mouth, you get a taste sensation that immediately tells you that these cattle do not eat ground-down bones, and then you hardly have to chew before swallowing. But that in itself makes it sound a disappointment, and it isn’t. It is a satisfying, lingering taste that makes you feel good about what you are eating.
To accompany the Wagyu, we had courgettes, asparagus and sweet potato. Of these, the courgettes were the best, grilled to perfection with a soya sauce to accompany them. The asparagus was sweet and tender, the sweet potato slightly overdone and hence a little mealy in the mouth.
To wash this all down, we had a rather lovely bottle of Domaine des Terres Falmet Carignan from Languedoc.
Whether I would venture back to Zuma is something I am not sure about. I probably wouldn’t come back to this particular restaurant again, although were I in Dubai or Tokyo, I might be tempted to try some other dishes off the menu. Certainly, the range of Japanese dishes was mouthwatering. But in the Knightsbridge branch, it was not quite enough. The waiting staff were not friendly in a way that inspires customer loyalty. Zuma is a place that you may go for a special occasion as a one-off. It is also the place you may go to impress a client who is visiting London. It is a place that flaunts its unremitting stylishness, but somehow it just seems to be gauche and trying too hard. I think the nearest metaphor I can offer is that it is like an X Factor contestant trying to mix it up with Bowie or Jagger but being too contrived to truly be a rock star.
But the ethos behind Zuma, that of paying top dollar to eat well-bred animals, is one that I would both endorse and encourage, as it sends a clear message to the food industry that producing good quality food that costs a bit more does pay.
The meal at Zuma in Knightsbridge cost two of us £300. This included two glasses of Billecart Salmon Brut Rose champagne, two glasses or 2008 Domaine des Terres Falmet Carigna, two starter dishes, three dishes of vegetables and two rib eye Wagyu steaks at £68 each.