Zuma: Precision, chaos and some of London’s finest Japanese food

In the heart of Knightsbridge lies Zuma, a restaurant aiming at truly top-class Japanese food– and hitting the mark in style, as James Fisher reports.

Zuma food

Zuma’s spicy beef tenderloin with sesame, red chilli and sweet soy

An impression that can be taken away from visiting Japan is a peculiar mix of precision and chaos. You only need to watch the countless videos of the functioning mayhem of the Shibuya crossing to realise that with the madness comes a method. The same can be found, in a somewhat condensed form, at the delightful Zuma in Knightsbridge.

Knightsbridge has lost some of its charm in recent years; a mixture of unaffordable property prices and luxury retail pushing your average Londoner to pastures new. A surprise then, and a welcome one, to see that Zuma is still pulsing with the life that its habitat now lacks, some 15 years after it first opened its doors. Tucked away down the quiet side alley that is Raphael St, it can’t pick up that much passing foot traffic; everyone is here because they want to be, a testament to its quality and appeal.

And by everyone, I mean everyone: the large space, with its stripped-back, verging on Brutalist, interior and unassuming tables, is rammed. Diligence dictated an early arrival, so thankfully there was one remaining space at the fully-stocked and impressive bar, where a cocktail was vanquished and thoughts were gathered.

Zuma, London

Zuma, London. It wasn’t this empty when we went.

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You can gain as much from standing back and observing the workings of Zuma as you can from eating here. Waiters glide effortlessly around the packed room, invisible ballet dancers piled high with fresh fish and fare who navigate invisible corridors unknown to the untrained eye. Like Shibuya, you anticipate an accident at every second, a tumultuous crash followed by a fountain of fresh tuna erupting into the air, but it never comes. Instead, everyone and everything reaches its destination with apparent ease, and, along the way, napkins are replaced, dishes are cleared and waters topped up, often without the recipient even noticing.

A table soon appeared, and I was ushered gracefully through the restaurant, following in the footsteps of my server, who navigated the high seas of the restaurant like a grizzled trawlerman. We made it one piece, with barely a chance to catch my breath before a glass of Champagne arrived in front of me.

It was a nice touch, but seemed out of place, in the way that a Sake would next to a steak frites. But the thought counts and before I could ponder any further the complexities of balancing Eastern cuisine in a Western environment, an opening salvo of crispy squid and sliced yellowtail arrived. The squid was lovely, but the yellowtail sublime, delicately juxtaposed with green-chilli relish and ponzu. I could have eaten it all night, but I was informed that there were plenty more courses to come, and as soon as it was finished – which was very soon – it was gone, removed by the invisible hand.

Zuma’s sliced yellowtail with green chilli relish, ponzu and pickled garlic

It’s at this point that I should reveal that I have a problem with crabs. Well, not a problem, more of an addiction, and the soft-shelled version that arrived next did little to help. It’s achingly fresh, and served with a wasabi mayonnaise that I’d cheerfully be drowned in. Its partners in crime, some seared beef and tuna tartare, barely got a look in, but, despite my own crustacean bias, they were splendid too, sharp in flavour and avoiding the sodium-filled pit that plagues so many Japanese restaurants. None too filling either, with the evening so far being a gentle waltz across the spectrum of flavour, rather than a stage dive into the murky depths of gluttony.

A more traditional sushi and sashimi platter followed, again almost instantaneously after the departure of its forebears. It was pleasant enough, though not particularly outstanding or necessary. The sashimi was vibrant, but the nigiri, or more specifically the rice, didn’t have much place in an evening I felt was more designed around tasting than filling. But filling it was and without much justification, considering what was to follow.

‘Are you ready for the hot courses?’ the waitress asked, almost knowingly, when she cleared plates away. ‘Yes,’ I grittingly replied, ‘can’t wait.’

The hot courses were a spicy beef tenderloin, unassumingly yet gracefully accompanied with sesame, red chilli and sweet soy, and a marinated black cod, wrapped like Marilyn Monroe, in a Hoba leaf.

Zuma's marinated black cod wrapped in hoba leaf - gin-dara no saikyo yaki

Zuma’s marinated black cod wrapped in hoba leaf – aka ‘gin-dara no saikyo yaki’

The cod was flaky, to the point where I felt that all it took was one particularly vicious glance for it all to fall apart. It was light, fluffy and haunted the tastebuds. The beef (pictured at the top of this page) was more direct, the spice threatening to overpower the flavour of the meat itself, but managing to dance the fine tightrope that separates delight and disappointment.

It was time for dessert, and what appeared was surprising purely for the fact that Carmen Miranda wasn’t wearing it. It was a pile – spectacularly ordered and organised – of chocolate, ice cream, sorbet and fruits so exotic and foreign that Nigel Farage almost certainly checks to see they’re not hiding under his bed at night. It was absurd, but, like the cannon in Tchaikovsky’s overture, extraordinary.

One of the signs of a great restaurant is a gentle tap on the shoulder. ‘Excuse me sir, but would you mind having your coffee at the bar, it’s just that you’ve been here two and a half hours.’ Getting lost in good food is one of the finest experiences in life, and the cooking at Zuma can provide it. There’s a course too many and it’s bigger and louder than you’d expect from truly fine dining, but, in the crowded market of high-end Japanese fare (think Kurobuta and Nobu), it’s up there with the best of them.

Zuma, 5 Raphael St, Knightsbridge, London SW7 1DL. Tel: 020 7584 1010; www.zumarestaurant.com