Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill in midtown Miami made a big splash this past January largely because its concept — robata grill, sushi bar, small plates — seemed unique.
Yet before Sugarcane came Zuma, which opened its London restaurant in 2002, followed by outposts in Hong Kong and Dubai; three months ago, it unveiled a downtown Miami branch in the Epic Hotel. These days, enough patrons pack Zuma's Zen-like environs to make it crackle with energy. A spacious and stylish sake lounge up front pours more than 40 types of the libation, including Biwa no Choju, brewed exclusively for Zuma "from the waters of Lake Biwa in the Shiga prefecture." I'm not sure where that is, but the sake tastes good.
The bar area leads to a lovely, lofty dining room composed of glass, stainless steel, granite, stone, and raw Indonesian wood tables — a multitextured, taupe-toned palette. One wall of floor-to-soaring-ceiling windows offers a vista of the Miami River (the fish-eye view of the Brickell Avenue drawbridge opening is as interesting a visual as one can hope to glimpse from a restaurant seat). On the opposite side, a thoroughly exposed kitchen blends into the space and serves as a main focal point — especially when sparkler-like flares from the robata grill alight. The sushi bar is tucked toward the rear, next to a glowing wall of backlit orange-colored glass. Other ambient conditions were less favorable — the music was too club-like and the room so chilled as to feel refrigerated — but this is nonetheless an ideal arena in which to meditate upon executive chef Rainer Becker's exquisite cuisine.
Zuma is "inspired by the informal Japanese dining style called izakaya," according to its website. This implies all sorts of traditions, but in Japanese-American restaurants, izakaya has come to mean simply the serving of small plates of food as they issue from the kitchen. Sounds like it could lead to a haphazard meal, but Becker (who trained in Japan) or his sous chef reassembles each order into a sensible progression (larger plates following smaller ones and so forth), and the waitstaff seamlessly shuffles old plates off the table and new plates onto it. The team operates like LeBron's Miami Heat will — each worker seeming to know instinctively what the others are doing and thus what each needs to do to keep the flow constant. It is very NBA Zen.
One quibble: After each dish was removed from the table, various team members asked us how things were; waiters recommend three to four items per diner, so you can imagine how many inquiries we received. Gauging our opinion once, at meal's end, would have sufficed — and preferably not prefaced by the greeting, "Hey, guys..."
We kicked things off with unagi no abokado maki, or freshwater eel with avocado, wasabi tobiko, shiso leaf, and yamagobo (pickled burdock root with the color and crunch of a raw carrot). The eight-piece arrangement ($14) featured terrific taste and textural contrasts.
Luckily, the maki didn't take long to arrive, because we were hungry and there was no bread basket or compensatory predinner comestible such as amuse-bouche or edamame (you can order the latter steamed or stir-fried as a starter). Next we sampled sashimi via a "chef selection" trio of tuna, salmon, and yellowtail. Two half-inch-thick rectangles of each came propped on crushed ice, in a wood bowl, with a clear wedge of frozen water rising up like a jagged iceberg (presentations here are stunning and often involve wood, ice, edible flowers, and shiso leaves). At the table, the waiter grated fresh wasabi root, a generous addition to the peerlessly pristine fish.
Chilled soba noodles come twirled with succulent chunks of lobster in a soy-ginger dressing. There was just about enough crustacean to justify the $19.50 cost, but surprisingly, they went skimpy with the soba. In fact, there were more diced tomatoes on the plate than there were noodles. Lightly pan-seared prawn-and-black-cod dumplings were tasty too, even if filled with way more cod than prawn.
A medley of seafood and vegetable tempura was flawless: two prawns, a finger of cod, and tenderly cooked pieces of Japanese eggplant, broccoli, sweet potato, and a whole shisito pepper, each encased in a cleanly crisp crust. Vegetables — such as small, soft squares of Japanese eggplant tastefully glazed with aka dashi miso — get the robata treatment as well.
Other items we enjoyed off the grill included two skinny skewers of chicken yakitori threaded with baby leeks and brushed with tart soy glaze. Then there was a medium-rare rib eye steak that looked like a slab of prime rib — the exposed red meat extremely tasty, relatively tender, and sliced into bite-size pieces (with chili ponzu sauce on the side). Finally, we ate the suzuki no shioyaki, or salt-grilled sea bass with "spicy burnt tomato." The fish fillet, served salty-skin-side-up, was juicy, fresh, and delicious. The spicy burnt tomato, however, turned out to be salsa made with tomato wedges rather than a small dice; it went well with the sea bass but was neither spicy nor blackened.
We tried a vegetarian rice hot pot festooned with a panoply of wild mushrooms and "Japanese vegetables" — the latter being mostly scallions and homemade tofu. The rather wet rice was steeped in earthy flavor and served in a cast-iron vessel set in a wooden frame. It worked as a stout starch to the rib eye, but this is too tedious a one-noter for any other role; next time I'll order a busier hot pot with protein such as king crab laced through it.
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Desserts are exceptional, beginning with a moist, dense banana cake striped at the bottom by a layer of green-tea cake. Ripe banana disks crown the slice, as does a sweet, syrupy topping containing bits of toffee. A scoop of cool coconut gelato alongside makes this dish a memorable finish.
Yukidama is a snowball of frozen coconut parfait with a center of passion fruit purée that streams out upon impact with the fork. House-made sorbets come in bright, tropical flavors such as a luscious, lemony yuzu. And a most dazzling and colorful fruit bowl brings fresh kiwi, passion fruit, papaya, dragon fruit, rambutan, and other flavors displayed on ice and garnished with flowers and shiso leaves. It stands out on the table much as it does among generally uninspiring fruit plates around town. Kudos to pastry chef Gaby Galindo.
Zuma can total up to a pricey proposition, but it doesn't reach Nobu-esque proportions. Sushi (two pieces) is generally $7 to $10; most small plates and salads $12 to $20; mains $21 to $36; and desserts $10 to $12. On one occasion, when two of us selected six plates plus one dessert between us, it ended up costing the same as a two-course meal for a couple at a traditional high-end establishment — but it's much more fun.
View our Zuma Miami slide show.