Zuma: Living the dream

Zuma has become almost an institution on the London dining scene. Even more than 10 years on from opening it can still be hard to get a table here. Meanwhile, the Zuma concept has been broadened across London (think Roka) and the rest of the world (versions of the original in Dubai and beyond). It would be easy for a restaurant in such a position to dine out on its success, but standards have stayed consistently high. A recent lunchtime visit demonstrated that the food remains as good as ever. The atmosphere, however, left quite a lot to be desired. Furthermore, this is not a place to go if you’re dining out on a budget, for eateries with large reputations in Knightsbridge locations obviously don’t come cheap. The Zuma concept is to combine sushi and sashimi with other Japanese-influenced cooking ranging from robata-grilled beef to the now-famous black cod speciality. Dishes come when they’re ready, so diners are entertained to a mash-up of warm and cold, starts and mains, delivered with brisk efficiency, almost to the point of being over-conscientious. On this point, some dishes were whisked away before they had been fully finished in an effort to keep the buzz going. None of our dishes – while present – disappointed either in terms of presentation or taste. The maki rolls were superbly fresh, the soft-shell crab deliciously tender and the beef packed with flavour, to name but a few examples. Our drink pairing – an aged orange wine from South African – was also inspired, if again far from cheap. So far, so good (especially since someone else was paying!), but the venue is the main factor that would make me consider whether to return of my own volition. The room is somewhat depressing with almost no natural light and ugly industrial piping exposed on the ceiling, factors that perhaps matter less when on an evening out, but seem incongruous of a lunchtime. Furthermore, the place felt far from intimate. There were many large groups of milling around, sometimes between tables, a constant flow of air-kissing and hand-shaking. Few looked as if they were enjoying themselves, present more to be seen rather than to dine. Why stare at your mobile phone when there is world-class food in front of you? Restaurants can’t choose their diners, but (somewhat discerning) diners can choose their restaurants.