Zuma Defies Expectation

by Michael Gross Photographed by courtesy Zuma
Tuesday, January 23, 2018

A German-born chef serving up Japanese food in restaurant named for either a Neil Young record, a beach in Malibu, California, a military satellite, or any of a number of South African celebrities?  Located in an office building in the dead-at-night environs of Madison Avenue just south of Grand Central Station? It doesn’t sound like recipe for success in Manhattan’s unforgiving culinary climate.  Yet  chef Rainer Becker’s Zuma, inspired by the informal izakaya-style Japanese dining rooms he discovered during a six-year stint in Tokyo, has a smash if stealth success on his hands at Zuma.

The sprawling menu mixes sushi, tempura, robata-grilled meats, fish and vegetables and what can best be described as Japanese comfort food (among the dishes introduced this winter are Glazed Beef Short Rib with Yakiniku Sauce, an American BBQ-inspired dish, Rice Hot Pot with Wild Mushrooms, Japanese Vegetables and Black Truffle, a Japanese take on risotto, and Prime Beef Tartare with Charcoal Mayonnaise and Crispy Nori crackers). 

They’re served in a  stunning two-story space designed with  Noriyoshi Muramatsu, founder of Studio Glitt. Raw industrial materials and finishes include mill-scale iron and rough-hewn granite boulders echo the bedrock beneath.  

Detailed with wood, clear, crisp glass, rich leather, distressed iron and steel, the multi-million-dollar space encompasses with three kitchens, including a sushi bar that accommodates eight guests a robata grill, a balcony lounge, and six private dining rooms.  Slatted steel booths called koyas, translated as “little pods” in Japanese, create an intimate dining experience for groups of four people.  

Becker has attracted an eclectic crowd that ranges from neighborhood garment and advertising executives and the commuter crowd to gold-chained baseball-capped hip-hoppers and deeply tanned, impressively-dressed deep-pocketed Euros. Locals Harvey Keitel, Michael Douglas and Roman Abramovich, and visiting celebrities Leonardo DiCaprio, Sean Penn, Gigi and Bella Hadid, and DJ Khaled, have all been spotted at Zuma.  Murray Hill locals, oddly enough, have yet to discover the place.  

The vast cast of dining characters makes sense when you consider Becker’s hop-scotch resume,  He began his career in top German restaurants like Koenigshof in Munich and Goethehaus in Bensberg before joining Hyatt Hotel Group, where he traveled the world for 14 years, winning awards in Sydney, Australia, before passing through Toyko en route to London, where he took over in 1998 as the executive chef at the Hyatt Carlton Tower hotel and also moonlighted at Alan Yau’s  Hakkasan before opening his first Zuma, with business partner Arjun Waney in London’s Knightsbridge in 2002. 



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