By Lee Brian Schrager | September 1, 2010 | Food & Drink
CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: Zuma chef and co-owner/founder Rainer Becker; the open-view robata grill; the bar/lounge space at Zuma serves an array of Japanese-inspired cocktails and over 40 varieties of sake.
Last spring’s debut of Zuma—notorious for being the most hard-to-land dinner reservation in London for eight years running—is the latest feather in downtown Miami’s cap. After wild success in Knightsbridge—followed by Hong Kong, Istanbul and Dubai—Germanborn chef, co-owner and founder Rainer Becker chose the Epic Hotel to house his first US outpost, a beautiful bayfront space awash in elegant, natural hues and finishes. Here, he deliciously implements what the Japanese call izakaya— informal, family-style dining centered on course after course of (sometimes reluctantly) shared dishes. Between the sushi bar and open-fire barbecue robata grill, sumptuous plate possibilities range from otoro (fatty tuna) sashimi and a prawn-tempura roll with pickled gobo and wasabi mentaiko (spicy pollack eggs) sauce to the popular yellowfin tuna tataki and Kurobuta pork-belly skewers with yuzu-mustard miso. They’re all executed to the level of perfection expected from a restaurant whose original UK location relegates would-be diners to a four-week wait. “Miami is an energetic, vibrant, multicultural place,” says Becker, who explains that his training chefs and managers spend at least nine months in London absorbing what he calls “the Zuma ethos.” “I love the sun, design, water and culture of this city. It’s magical.”
OD: You’re a German chef and Zuma features a Japanese menu. How does that work?
Rainer Becker: And I opened with an Indian partner! I speak Japanese, but not as well as I used to because I don’t practice day to day. The critics first thought this was an odd combination, but they didn’t realize I spent six years in Tokyo.
Is this restaurant different from Zuma outposts abroad?
No, it’s the same. All the signature items from London are here. And when we can’t get something, it just means the chefs will have to experiment.
FROM LEFT: Hatcho miso-marinated lamb chops with pickled onions and myoga; miso marinated black cod wrapped in a hoba leaf; sliced seared tuna with chili, daikon and ponzu sauce
Nobu Matsuhisa is someone you greatly admire. Do you know him?
I have known Nobu for many, many years, from Japan. I consider him a mentor, and his success in London really opened the doors for Zuma. His style is not authentic Japanese, and we use spices in a similar way. His success made me feel confident that maybe I would have the same success.
What is the definition of “zuma”?
It means many things and is a Japanese-sounding word that’s easy to pronounce in any language. First off, I didn’t want a traditional Japanese name. “Zuma” reflects the idea of an authentic but not traditional Japanese restaurant. I wanted people to come to London, see the name, and wonder what it is. Zuma is the name of a mountain in Hawaii, a beach in California, a politician in South Africa and even Gwen Stefani’s son. And if you pronounce it a certain way, it means “second wife” in Japanese.
What type of cuisine does Zuma highlight?
Izakaya, which is Japanese pub food. But the difference between French, American and German pub food and that in Japan is that izakaya is more food-oriented. It’s tastier. Everything in a Japanese pub is phenomenal. With Zuma I wanted to achieve the same thing: the element of sophistication in food, service and design.
Which robata dishes are your favorites?
I enjoy all of the dishes, but I do love the chicken wings, which are probably some of the simplest you’ve ever tasted. We just season them with sea salt, rub them with sake and grill.
Your sushi is extraordinary. What sets the superior apart from the mediocre?
The key is in the ingredients and the skill used in preparing the sushi and the sushi rolls. It comes down to the way you boil the rice and how you serve it. We have skilled Japanese sushi chefs who have worked at Zuma for years. The spider roll with the soft-shell crab has great texture, and the spicy tuna is one of my favorites.
Walk me through the preparation of your delicious pork-belly dish.
It’s salted and marinated overnight, then carefully cooked in master stock. We then press and glaze it on the robata grill. It’s served on a skewer with a mustard-miso sauce.
What’s the best-selling item on your menu?
The spicy beef. We take US Prime fillet and glaze it with spicy sauce, place it on the robata and grill it up to the desired cooking temperature. The meat is cut into bite-size cubes and finished with a grilled spring onion on top. Other popular dishes are the yellowfin tuna tataki and the black cod, sourced from Alaska. The fillet of cod is marinated in a special miso marinade, finished in the oven and served on a hoba leaf.
Describe one of your most decadent desserts.
Our signature deluxe platter is comprised of a selection of six desserts, fruits and sorbets, and is served on a bed of crushed ice on a two-anda- half-foot-long platter that resembles a stick of bamboo. It’s perfect for sharing as well as for impressing guests, and guarantees that the meal ends in the most memorable way.
Tell me about your Miami chef.
I’ve worked with Bjoern Weissgerber for the last four years, and he will have the opportunity to create new dishes. I want my chefs to understand the concept and to like what they’re doing. I spend a lot of time with the chefs, especially in the beginning.
How much emphasis is put on cocktails and drinks?
Cocktails are as important as any food item. Everything here is fresh—it needs to be, from beginning to end. It all stems from my perfectionism.
Where do you like to dine when you’re in Miami?
Prime One Twelve and Joe’s Stone Crab. I like simple food, high-quality ingredients and good execution. I always like a good steakhouse.
With whom would you most like to collaborate?
Alain Ducasse comes to Zuma and I respect him. Pierre Gagnaire. Alice Waters. I’ve never met her, but I love what she is doing—it’s very sustainable, and we need more of that.
Photographs by greg clark