Zuma’s still got it, or so it would appear. Seven pm on the dot passed us by, and so we arrived at 7:10, for our early sitting, and already the venue was filling. After being spirited up to the lofty bar in a brushed steel lift to watch the after-work crowd sip Bellinis, the maitre’d tried to find our booking. It’s gone, disappeared into the dusty summer wind no doubt, but no matter, with table found, we teetered down glossy under-lit stairs in our smart casual shoes to the restaurant.
An island of smiling chefs bustled over ingredients efficiently, simultaniously bidding us welcome, while we were shown to our window table. Dubai’s day was yet to set, and we found our twilight view to be a carpark strewn with bricks and desert refuse. I complained to my companion, who shruged her shoulders “It’s quite a fitting portrait of Dubai, I think. Construction, dust, a lone tree clinging onto life against the odds.” She’d just arrived that morning and been greeted by a heatwave. Her love of the city at this stage is meagre.
Our waitress explained the izakaya style of dining Zuma follows – we are to share, with food to arrive as soon it is ready. So some spicy tuna tataki, ramen and the day’s special scallop salad was ordered, with a promise that we could order more as the evening progressed if we wished. Service was swift, and within moments we were sated with spicy edamame and a reasonably priced (for Dubai) 2010 Martin Codax Albarino.
The tuna arrived first, seared lightly and in slender angled slices amongst pickled daikon and crispy fried garlic. It dwelt in a ponzu sauce with a dollop of neon orange chilli, which the waiter stirred in for us. The tuna has a texture unmatched elsewhere in Dubai – meaty yet soft, even, stringless and without the floury, jello-like mouthfeel we often get here. The sauce was overly salty, but grew on us, especially after the fish was gone and we were left with only zesty pickle and spice to nibble.
The scallop salad came next, and although, again, the seafood was of excellent quality and cooked perfectly, this dish was unbalanced and uninteresting. Standard ingredients like mesclun and shredded daikon and a sprinkling of what I think is shichimi was encircled by a necklace of pearly scallops. Some tiny white frilled rings in the salad were chewy but otherwise dull. After throwing around some seafoody suggestions, we asked the waitress what they were. “Funghi” she said, to our surprise. And when we asked what kind, because we have never seen any mushroom that looks or tastes like this, she tells us “shitake”… No… After a trip to the kitchen, she came back to tell us it’s radish… No… We are awful, I know, to make her take the squiggly morsel back to the kitchen to find out, but eventually discovered it was a mussel’s muscle.
And here, I’d like to break the menu to have a little rant. This restaurant has just made it to number 83 on the San Pelligrino Worlds’ Best Restaurants list. And yet their staff are not trained properly. I’m not expecting everyone to know what a mussel’s muscle looks like, but even I know what a shitake mushrooms is, and there is probably a little pile of daikon on nearly every plate that leaves a Japanese kitchen. She was polite and efficient, but did not know enough about the food. It’s an old story here in Dubai, but in my opinion remains unforgivable, particularly if they want to retain the status that a Worlds’ Best mention gives them.
But back to the food.
The ramen was not a soup, but a dry dish – well textured but not overly flavoursome. Not necessarily a downfall, but it would have been preferential to have this served as a side dish, because that is exactly what it was. I’d give it a miss next time. Still hungry, we ordered the black cod, a signature dish for Zuma, and now a favourite of mine, since my discovery at Hashi a year or so ago.
As we waited, sipped, supped and spoke of home, the music increased in volume. As seems to be the standard with all of Dubai’s swanky Japanese restaurants now, Zuma is also a bar. Upstairs the glamazons filed in, seeking bankers and lawyers who had already been three sheets to the wind by 7pm. And within a few minutes after 8pm, we could hear nothing but music. No more talk for our table, we drank and nodded, watched the beautiful crowd, and followed the angles of the smoothly linear interior, trying to find zen in our inner Japanese sand garden until the masterpiece arrived. I’ve raved about black cod before, so will not overly do so again. Trust me, it’s dense, flakes off in bite-sized chunks and dissolves in the mouth like a wedge of salted butter. This black cod in hoba leaf is a good one, and should be ordered at every visit.
Our night concluded with this dish – our bellies and clocks out of space, so we moved on before we were shuffled off the table at 9pm. With a frown on my friend’s face, “I wonder who chooses the World’s Best Restaurants?” she asked me, as we wove our way through the waiting crowd at the door to take one of the many taxis pulling in and unloading. And I couldn’t help but nod, even though I know the answer, as last year I was one of the many who voted. I nodded because although it’s a good restaurant, it’s not superb. Off the top of my head, I can think of three meals from the last six months that were far more inspiring, and those restaurants made it nowhere near the top 100.
The reason? Zuma is a Dubai fallback. It is one restaurant in Dubai where you can go at any time and have a good (but probably not great) experience. And unfortunately that is rare in Dubai. This can probably be reflected in the only other MENA restaurant to make the cut – La Petite Maison (96), which is another good restaurant in Dubai, but in my opinion, not so special. Is it fair that crowd-pleasing, but fairly uninspiring restaurants are touted as our best? Probably. It’s a sign that other restaurants in the region need to become more constant (but hopefully not too predictable). Honestly, how hard can it be?
Note – Zuma does not permit the taking of photographs of either their interior or food. I managed to grab a couple of the scallops and ramen before I was asked to put my beast away. The other images are from Zuma’s own website.
Despite my reservations, Zuma has still made it into my top 20 restaurants of Dubai, part of the Dubai Gourmet Trail as coordinated by the Dubai Food Festival. My post here, and theirs on the Dubai Food Festival website.