By Brett Graff | April 10, 2012 | Food & Drink
Signature earth tones warm the dining room, where rice paper panels extend from the ceiling
Zuma executive chef Bjoern Weissgerber
The outside terrace overlooks the Miami River
Artful sushi at Zuma
Kombu-cured salmon tataki with smoked tofu and Japanese mustard
It’s 1 PM on a Thursday afternoon, and the dining room at Zuma is buzzing. Business people in starched shirts are huddled over tables, hammering out deals. Ladies, draped in all shades of silk, are definitely lunching. And because the Miami sun and the tropical breeze arrived together that day, mega yachts are docked out back in the waters lining the restaurant’s patio. Many of those yachts’ passengers will request that Zuma servers bring rice hot pots with mushrooms or long pottery plates topped with yellowtail sushi and serrano pepper out to their boat decks.
In fact, every single aspect of the afternoon, including the riverside downtown location, is so perfectly positioned for this midday meal that it’s hard to believe that once the sun goes down, the same spot will become one of the city’s most chic and coveted nightspots, rivaling even the most exclusive club du jour. “It’s almost like having two different restaurants,” says Steven Haigh, Zuma’s general manager.
That Zuma is able to keep the reservation book full during daylight hours, when much of its after-dark competition is populated only by cleaning crews and prep chefs, is impressive. But it’s due to some smart moves. Though glamorous and nocturnal in tone, the restaurant’s towering ceilings, sultry music, and a bar lined with magnums of imported sake don’t hurt; neither does a celebrity clientele. Zuma also serves the kind of fare that’s fresh and clean. Artistically crafted fish and beef sliced to delicate width, all paired with vegetables and flavors such as truffle, leave a Miamian satisfied, not stuffed, and impressed but not weighed down. And that means the rest of the afternoon can be productive and full of meetings or Pilates classes without precluding dinner later that evening.
“I live a holistic lifestyle,” says Karla Dascal, an event designer with an office in Wynwood. “There’s a certain consciousness to this restaurant, and the kitchen is very accommodating.”
Lunch at Zuma can be leisurely; recently, two gentlemen sat down for a three-hour meal before moving to the lounge for cocktails and later back to a new table for dinner. Or it can be accomplished in under an hour. The set business lunch option offers three courses: two starters—white miso soup and a mixed leaf salad with barley miso dressing—and a choice of main dishes such as branzino with pickled fennel, mitsuba leaves, and myoga; or a sashimi selection with avocado, cucumber, asparagus, and salmon roe.
“I don’t generally have red meat for lunch,” says Paul Weiss, a managing partner at Atlas One Financial Group, who often selects the eggplant salad when dining here weekly with his partners at the company. “The ambience is great, and the food is consistent and healthy.”
The first Zuma was opened in London by founder and chef Rainer Becker, who had previously worked in Michelin-starred restaurants and later with Hyatt, which hired him to launch five restaurants in Tokyo.
“Japanese food culture fascinates me,” he says, “the way every element of the dining experience is approached, no matter if you are having some yakitori in a street bar or experiencing the seasonality of kaiseki in Kyoto. Zuma took shape in my head in Japan, and by the time I returned to Europe, I was very sure of the restaurant I wanted to open.”
Becker imported Zuma to Miami in 2010, and as with all the locations (there will soon be seven total), he made sure to tailor his concept to locals. While each restaurant has the brand’s signature décor theme of natural earth tones, in Miami the tables are topped with wood imported from Indonesia, the floors and walls are made up of earth-tone granite, and the floor-to-ceiling windows reveal boat traffic idling by. Even the menu has to be specially crafted: In Hong Kong they’re more keen on noodles, while in our city we’re not big on carbs. “We have to experiment with dishes,” says executive chef Bjoern Weissgerber, who refuses to take credit for designing the menu. “It’s really teamwork.”
One of the concepts that travels across the globe, however, is Zuma’s attention to customers. “Rainer’s philosophy is don’t worry about the numbers,” says Haigh. “Worry about the people. If the people are happy, the numbers will take care of themselves.” Presumably that refers strictly to revenue, because there are some telling figures that clearly required great thought. To service the restaurant’s 72 tables (20 on the terrace, 14 in the lounge, and 38 in the main dining room), Zuma employs 184 people. Of those, 75 are chefs, 14 are bartenders, and 12 are managers. There are three kitchens—a robata grill lined with enormous vegetables, a sushi bar, and a main kitchen for the preparation of menu items such as rock shrimp with lime and tofu or saikyo miso-marinated black cod. And lastly, but certainly not least—Zuma, has a dedicated sake sommelier—which isn’t exactly the easiest position to fill. 270 Biscayne Blvd. Way, Miami, 305- 577-0277
photographs by james shearer (entrance); bill wisser (sushi); darren trentacosta (weissgerber, outside tables, sushi)