Restaurant Review: Zuma

02 Dec 2011

Ahlan! Gourmet puts Dubai's A-list Asian restaurant Zuma under the spotlight

Dubai International Financial Centre, Dubai
04 425 5660
Dress code:
12.30pm to 3pm, 7pm to midnight  
Price Range:

Cosy isn’t the word that springs to mind as you ascend in Zuma’s glass-walled elevator into the heart of the restaurant, mid-afternoon. But neither is it austere and masculine. Elegant, certainly, expensive for sure; the glass, granite and wood – whose natural form has been allowed to dictate the shape of the reception desk – of which Zuma is composed mostly resists the tidy right angle imperative. The once slate-grey metal wall upstairs has developed a veneer of rust – a process no doubt hastened by the breath of myriad martini-sipping bankers – and it seems that chunks of it have fallen off. As the sunlight dims, the discreetly positioned lights gently compensate Zuma’s two floors – the mezzanine lounge and bar overlook the restaurant and kitchens at ground level. “I’d love someone to do a time-lapse movie of the restaurant as the sun goes down and the interior lights fade up – it’s pretty special,” says Shabnum Rajput, Zuma’s marketing and communications manager for the Middle East.

Shabnum explains Rainer Becker’s central concept for Zuma to us: the izakaya style of social dining with food shared on the table and fresh natural ingredients; how the elements of its design, food and drinks conspire to create a sophisticated buzz in such a large physical space. Even the very fabric of the restaurant is composed of natural materials, representing the elements of earth, fire, air and water. The ethos is embraced at all levels, from the large hunk of fresh ice the bartenders chip away at – you’ll find no tidy right angles in those martinis either – to the food and drink ingredients; to seventy-year-old Arita- San’s handmade plates; and the wood, glass and hand-finished granite that is expected to wear and develop character as it’s inhabited. The same applies to that rusty wall. “We were excited to get that wall put up. It’s a specific design that took six months to rust before it was put together. So we were a bit worried when a chunk fell off in the first week of opening – you can’t just change one panel. But the designer, Noriyoshi Muramatsu, assured us that the décor should be allowed to evolve, rather than us feel the need to constantly replace worn areas,” Shabnum explains. Even the choice of music for the lounge and bar avoids any association that might be perceived as plastic. Ajaz Sheikh, director of operations for the Middle East explains, “Our DJ uses three decks – I don’t think you’ll find that elsewhere in Dubai – and he builds from a loungey vibe in the early evening to more lively music as the crowd grows. But it’s never commercial; you won’t hear chart music here.”

“Although DIFC is geographically central to Dubai, in 2008 it certainly wasn’t a dining destination, so we were taking a huge risk,” admits Ajaz. “But now most of Dubai’s new openings are happening in this area.” We put it to Ajaz that perhaps Zuma, like other high-end brands in Dubai, was cushioned from the impact of the global financial downturn by the relative affluence of its clientele. The table erupts with laughter. “As we were building Zuma, Dubai was going up and up, development was booming and we were ordering the interior materials, fine-tuning the design, thinking, ‘The biggest restaurant in the Middle East, 500 seats, 160 staff, we’ll open with a bang!’ All of us were very excited. Then on September 17, 2008 Lehman Brothers crashed. On September 18 we opened our doors… in Dubai’s financial district! I can tell you, everyone was very nervous,” admits Shabnum. “But through the hard work of everyone, from the early design stages to now, we’ve just seen the business grow.” Ajaz suggests, though, that they have seen some fluctuation in custom as expats left Dubai. “In that first year maybe people were just drowning their sorrows, but at least we were busy! Now we have a reputation, and people know that on any given night of the week they will find a crowd here, because we’re consistent, not just in food and service, but in the music and the drinks menu.”

And it’s some drinks menu. While nonchalantly snapping the caps off green bottles of imported brew might be considered a job well done in some restaurant’s bars, Zuma’s approach ensures that their liquid accompaniments are far from playing second fiddle to their culinary counterparts. Bowls of fresh fruit and vegetables nestle against the aforementioned giant block of ice, which tonight will not only supply a chill to some fabulous cocktails but which will also later be subjected to some live sculpting. Frenchman Jimmy Barrat de Cecco boasts the title of world’s number five bartender – bestowed upon him at the prestigious Diageo Reserve World Class 2011 – and the bar beneath Zuma’s trademark rows of Japanese bottles is his. Consistent with the ethos applied to décor and food, Jimmy’s creations don’t rely on pre-mixed bottles of sugary artifice, just quality fresh ingredients combined to order. Regulars know that these gourmet beverages aren’t just pulled instantly from cases of labeled bottles, and their patience is rewarded. “When I worked in Zuma Miami the guests were interested mainly in speedy service and the drinks being sugary. That was an uncomfortable compromise for me since each drink is mixed fresh and takes time. And if it needs to be sweetened I use fresh fruit, not sugar,” explains Jimmy.

The range of drinks on offer is impressive, incorporating sake-based drinks, signature martinis and a host of familiar cocktails. However, we are drawn to Jimmy’s own page of the menu. An interest in pre-Prohibitionera drinks led him to revive some lost combinations – culled from recipes dating back from the time of the gold rush in 1870, and up to 1912. He’s also been creating original recipes, which are in the process of being rolled out across the Zuma brand. “The best-selling by far is the raspberry and passion fruit martini,” says Shabnum, “But you must try the rhubarb-infused sake too.”

So, how do the tastes of Dubai’s imbibers compare with, say, London’s: are they as adventurous? “Even more than London!”, Jimmy grins. “My London customers were well-educated about their drinks, they knew what they wanted and why. At first in Dubai people were very brand-orientated, they’d ask for a Grey Goose because they’d heard that was a good brand or they’d ask for a vodka martini because they’d heard James Bond order it! But it was definitely easier to convince people to try a new experience here. We have a regular base of customers in Dubai who know and expect good drinks now.”

Of course, not all of Zuma’s clientele come here with the express purpose of propping up the bar. Chef Refai Bin Othman – executive head chef for One Rochester Group in Singapore, prior to joining Zuma in 2009 – is the reserved, fresh-faced executive chef overseeing Zuma Dubai’s kitchens and will be instrumental in helping to shape the plans to develop the brand throughout the Middle East. In describing Zuma’s culinary style he says, “It’s authentic but not traditional Japanese cuisine with a contemporary international twist. The basis for each dish is simple presentation acquired through quality seasonal ingredients. But the only essential Zuma ingredient is passion.” We query what he means by “authentic but not traditional,” and he explains that whilst the methods of preparation and cooking are distinctly Japanese – working within the concept of izakaya – the menu is far from being limited to traditional Japanese staples. On-cue the robata charcoal grill in the open kitchen behind him crackles and spits, punctuating his words. “In keeping with the cuisine, we try to use Japanese products, ingredients and techniques as much as possible. However, where we can, we source local products that are of the same standard.” So does the philosophy extend to using organic produce, despite the apparently diminished public zeal for it in recent years? “Where possible we use organic produce, of course. But it’s very difficult to get the supplies. When we started in Dubai some of our ingredients were unique to this restaurant and we had to pay suppliers for entire shipments to make it worth their while – a huge risk and huge expenditure to take on,” says Ajaz Sheikh.

Although Zuma was the first Japanese fine diner to open up in the area, several have followed in its footsteps. What keeps Zuma unique? “For a start our style of food is very light and ideal for a hotter climate. Our black cod and yuzu and truffle seabass are always popular orders. However, the uniqueness of our Dubai menu compared to our existing international restaurants is that it is all halal.” We put it to Chef Bin Othman that perhaps not everyone who takes a seat in his restaurant ‘gets’ the Zuma concept. “Well, sometimes,” he laughs. “We had one guest who asked for chips. Sounds crazy, but then this is the only Zuma that has baked potato on its menu!”

Zuma’s reputation is well-established globally, and as a high-end restaurant it attracts its fair share of celebrities. We asked Ajaz why Zuma in particular draws the big names. “Authenticity and consistency. Our guests trust the name. And the details: with other fine dining restaurants in Dubai you often have to traipse through a hotel lobby, shopping mall or car park before you get to your table. I think everyone, especially our high profile guests, enjoys that they can get their car valeted as they walk straight into the lift which takes you directly into the bar or the restaurant without any fuss. And when you leave you’re in your car or a taxi within less than two minutes of leaving your table. We don’t need a back entrance for celebrity guests!” So, you must have some big name anecdotes for us? “That’s the other reason that level of guest comes here: we don’t name names or share stories! Of course, guests in the restaurant will recognise famous faces across the room and ask us if it’s who they think it is – and there’s no point denying who it is – but we don’t make a song and dance about it.” Shabnum takes over, “People will call us and say, ‘We heard you had so-and-so in Zuma last night, why didn’t you tell us?!’ and we’ll say, ‘Ohhhh-kay!’ but that’s all.”

It sounds like Zuma Dubai’s had a pretty smooth ride, despite its untimely opening date? “Well, not entirely; we’ve had our share of hairy moments,” admits Ajaz. “One New Year’s Eve we had live cooking stations upstairs and downstairs and at about 10pm a water pipe burst and the whole of the upstairs area was flooded with about three inches of water. Meanwhile we have around 1,100 guests in masquerade outfits while we go around smiling hoping it all gets fixed very quickly.” “And,” adds Shabnum, “when it rains here our car park downstairs can get flooded, which can affect our lift hydraulics. So one year we prepared in advance and sent one of our managers out to get sandbags to divert the water away from the entrance. He came back with these plastic-coated sandbags! They were no good to us for the car park, but we were so grateful for them that New Year’s Eve!”

So, what’s the hardest part of being Zuma Dubai? “Being consistent to our values whilst trying to improve. We’ve had awards every year since opening – which is great – but it also means we have to keep it fresh so people and the awards keep coming. We worry about what to do if we don’t win a best restaurant award one year!”

Somehow, Zuma, we find that scenario difficult to imagine.