Zuma, the Boston installment of a global chain of high-end Japanese restaurants, is located inside soaring new Back Bay tower One Dalton. Its 61 stories also contain a Four Seasons hotel and luxury condos. A penthouse here reportedly costs $40 million, but they only let me up to the second floor to eat. I valet my dented Subaru behind a cherry-red Lamborghini and share the elevator with a woman whose handbag costs more than my mortgage payment.
It’s funny. Not so long ago, a restaurant opening in a luxury development might have had tablecloths, formal service, even more formal cuisine, and a superiority complex. At Zuma, impeccably tailored Europeans, a guy with a ZZ Top beard and gold chains, birthday celebrants, chest-bumping dude bros, after-work girlfriends, foreign students whose dorm this may be, a selfie-ing woman having a wardrobe malfunction in a low-cut gown, and groups of all ages, colors, origins, and fashion senses eat side by side and are welcomed. Who can tell anymore who is rich, or what fancy food is, or who “belongs” here? We talk a lot about how fine dining has changed, but less about how fine diners have. If there is nostalgia for an old model of occasion restaurant, that’s understandable. But that old model was mainly romantic to a preapproved few, and those who wished to be among them. This change thing ain’t all bad.
Of course, you still have to be able to pay the bill. A meal at Zuma doesn’t come cheap: $20 for yellowtail sashimi here, $69 for roast lobster with shiso-ponzu butter there, and before you know it you’re at $150 a head and counting. It’s the kind of sticker shock that comes when you’re at the gas pump, watching the numbers tick upward digit by digit. The truth is, eating in restaurants doesn’t come cheap, and $150 a head is no longer some wild outlier price in dining land.
The question, as always, is: Is it worth it? At Zuma, sometimes, with a healthy sprinkle of “depends what you’re looking for” added in for flavor.
Food is prepared at three open stations: the main kitchen, a sushi counter that faces diners seated just beyond the bar, and a grand, glassed-in area for robata grilling at the center of a dining room kitted out in so much wood I think the parent company must have purchased its own forest to decimate. There’s a live-edge bar, whole swirly wall planks, overhead boards, rectilinear stalactites dangling in a fringe along the windows. It’s like eating in a very luxe, very handsome bamboo grove. On the way in, there’s a faux grass wall with “Zuma” spelled out in flowers where one can pause for an Instagram moment.
There are snacks to start the meal, or to accompany well-made cocktails such as the festive house Mai Tai, the refreshingly frothy and shiso-inflected Geishi Smash, or the Burning History, a smoked potion of Suntory Toki whisky you can smell smoldering its way toward you. Prawn and black cod dumplings come arrayed in a row with dipping sauce, nicely folded but nearly scorched on one side; the filling is mushy, and there’s little prawn flavor. (The menu also offers lobster on a miso bun with pickled ramps and Siberian caviar for market price. At this point it’s hard to get excited about yet another bun riff, never mind one that turns out to be $37.)
Sashimi is beautifully presented: curls of thin-sliced tuna lightly torched at the edges, served with chili daikon in a pool of ponzu sauce; slices of yellowtail fanning out across a plate with green chili relish, pickled garlic, and more ponzu. But the flavors don’t always pop in these compositions. I’d just as soon have the lovely fish by itself, showcased simply.
There may be no harder-working person at Zuma than the chef behind the sushi counter, who doesn’t slow down all night. I want to give him a round of applause on my way out, and maybe some wrist braces for his RSI. I like the nigiri here: The rice is cooked properly, and the bites are perfectly sized, delicate enough that you don’t get that bear-trying-to-eat-a-whole-salmon sensation. A California roll made with real crab sounds promising, but the finer details get lost in the mix. There are several selections filed under “Zuma special sushi”: Luscious scallops topped with pats of sea urchin and slices of truffle taste special indeed (and again are market price, $34 for two pieces).
It’s when Zuma starts to apply heat that things really get cooking. Tempura vegetables are pretty, a rainbow of mushrooms, peppers, eggplant, and more, if a little undercooked beneath their lacy batter. But the robata and the signature dishes are where Zuma shines.
It is incredible that things are being cooked over charcoal in this smokeless room: That’s one hell of a ventilation system. The live fire brings out the best in shiitake mushrooms, served in a sauce of garlic, soy, and butter that would make just about anything taste good. Scallops are skewered on toothpicks, deeply charred yet still tender at the center, topped with orange roe and frilly purple shiso leaves. They need a good sprinkle of coarse salt. If steak were the only thing Zuma served, it would be enough. It comes in many forms: cubed rib eye with garlic chips and a sauce of onion and soy, skirt steak with shiso chimichurri, tomahawk with truffles, wagyu. Our 12-ounce rib eye arrives in slices, cooked to the ideal temperature, judiciously and deliciously fatty at the edges. We whisk the charred, juicy meat through the scallion-soy dipping sauce, dunk it in the little pile of coarse salt, and eat it greedily.
Miso-marinated black cod is not just a Zuma signature dish, but a trope for this kind of large-scale Japanese restaurant, popularized 25 years ago when it debuted at Nobu in New York. Zuma does it well, wrapping it in a dried magnolia leaf, cooking it until its edges are lightly caramelized. The accompanying sauce is to be skipped, however, unpleasantly flavored and cloyingly sweet. Out-of-towners will get sucked in by the roasted lobster, and you might as well too. It’s split down the middle and served in its shell with grilled lemon for squeezing, the meat already cut into bite-size pieces. I wish the shiso-ponzu butter drizzled on top tasted more like shiso or ponzu, but I’m not going to argue with lobster cooked this perfectly, tender and moist.
The sleeper here may be the rice hot pot with wild mushrooms and truffles. With all of the menu’s bells and whistles, it would be easy to overlook something that sounds relatively humble. It is anything but. Each mouthful is intoxicatingly woodsy, packed with deep umami. Some dishes at Zuma look stunning but taste lackluster; this one flips the formula.
For dessert there’s a towering cube of green tea and banana cake with an excellent, bouncy texture, swathed in toffee sauce, with peanut crunch, black sesame seeds, and a pure, creamy snowball of coconut ice cream. A caramelized apple hot pot is a fun seasonal idea, served in the same cedar-lidded nabe pot as the rice, New England meets Japan. It’s reconstructed apple pie a la mode — cooked fruit, dough balls filled with buckwheat-tea ice cream, miso-toffee sauce, and puffed rice granola. But the dough balls are too doughy, and there’s not enough of the ice cream (which doesn’t seem to taste like buckwheat tea, at any rate).
There’s the wine selection you’d expect from the proud glass display tower: an Opus One vertical spanning a decade, high-end Barolo, $80 premier cru Burgundy by the glass. There’s also a more out-of-the-box list of bottles selected by the sommelier, and a sizable sake selection that covers all price points.
Service is still a little bumpy. We’re told we can’t order one cocktail because the bar is out of mint, then the replacement cocktail arrives — adorned with a sprig of mint. We wind up with two servers, and thus two offers of water, two requests for our drink order, and so on. But Zuma grows on me steadily over the course of my visits, and a lot of that has to do with the staff — one server who gives us the god’s honest down-low on what we should order, another who dishes with us about where to eat hotpot in Chinatown. Any time I go to a Zuma, or a Terra, or even an Encore, I’m reminded that at the heart of every global chain is an on-the-ground group of people who might be my neighbors.
In its luxury tower, Zuma harks back to restaurants like TAO and Buddakan — the kind of splashy, Asian-inspired showplaces that were au courant in the early to mid 2000s, a last bit of excess built on an economic cliff that shortly tumbled into the sea. The place is always busy. Branches can be found in London, Vegas, Turkey, Hong Kong, Dubai. People gravitate toward this brand of Japanese food swaddled in global luxury. I may not drive a Lamborghini, but after that steak, I’m at least starting to see Zuma’s appeal.
ZUMA ★ ★ ½
1 Dalton St., Back Bay, Boston, 857-449-2500, www.zumarestaurant.com/locations/boston All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Small plates $5-$27. A la carte sushi $9-$31. Tempura $18-$22. Robata $11-$44. Signature dishes $38-$69. Desserts $5-$21. Omakase $95-$135. Lunch sets $29-$39.
Hours Dinner Sun-Thu 5:30-10:30 p.m., Fri-Sat 5:30-11 p.m. (bar opens at 5 daily). Lunch Mon-Fri 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.
Noise level Conversation easy over a little untz-untz-untz.
What to order Nigiri selection, rice hot pot, roasted lobster, 12-ounce rib eye, shiitake mushrooms, green tea and banana cake.
★ ★ ★ ★ Extraordinary | ★ ★ ★ Excellent | ★ ★ Good | ★ Fair | (No stars) Poor