When I moved to Dubai six years ago, I was told by many a seasoned expat that I have to eat at least one meal at Zuma. It was almost like a rite of passage for my fellow foodie friends. I did, and have since returned to the izakaya-style Japanese restaurant annually, for a birthday one year, an anniversary the next and Valentine’s Day a third. And yet, if I were to describe the experience, I don’t think I would peg it under the fine-dining label; the bustling, almost party-like vibe, constant chatter and foot-thumping music are more in keeping with an upscale lounge, one with consistently delicious food. And that, says German chef-turned-restaurateur and Zuma co-founder Rainer Becker, is exactly in keeping with the brand’s philosophy.
“My intention with Zuma was never to have a fine-dining restaurant concept. The aim was always to serve the highest quality products in a sophisticated but relaxed environment. And that has not changed over the years,” says Becker. “In an industry that is ever-evolving, maintaining a strong position in the market after 10 years with so many new options opening in the city, is a feat we have worked very hard for.”
Becker says that the two most important elements in the restaurant business are the staff and the food. The latter includes such favourites as grilled freshwater eel with avocado sweet omelette and gobo maki rolls; grilled Chilean sea bass with green chilli ginger dressing; shiitake mushroom skewers with garlic and soy butter; roasted lobster with shiso ponzu butter; and, of course the famed miso-marinated black cod wrapped in a hoba leaf, which personally I enjoy pairing with the mushroom rice hotpot with shaved fresh truffle. Having never had enough room for dessert, I nevertheless look forward to sampling the green tea and banana cake with coconut ice cream and toffee sauce on my next visit.
To this list of deliciousness, Becker adds: “High-quality food aside, when the passion and love staff have for a brand becomes palpable, I believe that lies at the core of a successful business. Our team manages to curate an experience that blends an exciting menu, fantastic service and amazing people with an atmosphere that never disappoints. And for us, we are very fortunate that our guests share this passion.”
He notes the majority of patrons are returning customers, who have been dining at Zuma since it opened in 2008. “Some of them still come once or twice every week. That’s why, after 10 years, it’s still so tough to get a table,” he says with a laugh. “At the same time, we also see new faces every day, so it’s a flattering and fantastic mix. However, we don't rest on our laurels,” he adds. “Success is an ongoing effort and it's important to understand that: the work never stops.”
The first Zuma opened in Knightsbridge in 2002, after Becker and Zuma co-founder Arjun Waney bonded at their hairdresser’s over their love for Japanese food. After stints in Germany and Australia, Becker had spent six years in Tokyo before coming to London, while Karachi-born London businessman Waney was keen to invest in the restaurant business. The duo opened the second Zuma outpost in Miami [PR], and there’s been no looking back since: the restaurant now has outposts in New York, Las Vegas, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Bangkok, Rome, Phuket, and of course Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
“As a business, we work to maintain the same quality of product and service everywhere. So the menu in the UAE is pretty similar to our other menus. We have guests who dine in our restaurants all over the world and the spicy beef, for example, should be of equal quality everywhere, along with the service. The majority of the dishes are the same internationally, but individual locations have their own seasonal items create within teams,” says Becker.
“We also wanted to lead the way by bringing a world-class bar and lounge experience within a sophisticated restaurant. I believe our reputation is based on that, as well as our consistency. Over the years the restaurant has grown organically and Zuma Dubai has come to have a very specific feel about it. And I think that the lounge and bar is one of the elements that sets it apart here in the UAE, too. Our teams creating the drinks and music continue to push to be ahead of the curve and this, along with the food and service, has helped build longevity.