by Len Lear
According to the Cassandras who are allegedly experts on the economy, our economy is still in deep do-do, with unemployment at 8 percent, which does not count the millions who have stopped looking for work, and consumers watching every penny as if it were the Hope Diamond.
Therefore, you may be as shocked as we were when we had dinner last week at Zama, the Japanese restaurant that is celebrating its third anniversary this month at 128 S. 19th St., one block north of Rittenhouse Square and the former home of Loie’s. (Owned by bar entrepreneur Avram Hornik, Loie was at one time the hottest Rittenhouse Square area restaurant, but stuff happens.)
Theoretically, the place should have been deserted. It was a weeknight (Thursday); the economy is in the tank; finding a nearby place to park is like hitting the lottery, and Zama is no longer the new hottie every foodie wants to snuggle up with for a first date.
Nevertheless, Zama and the surrounding community have hit it off like grease hitting a skillet. By about 8:30 p.m., almost every table in both dining rooms and each seat at the bar was occupied, and we overheard one diner at an adjacent table “crushing” on the food. “This is just as good as Morimoto,” she said.
Her comparison to Morimoto was a slam dunk, especially since the chef/owner of Zama, Hiroyuki “Zama” Tanaka, 41, previously ran the kitchens at such Asian sparklers as Pod, Morimoto and Genji. Tanaka first started in the sushi trade in Kanagawa, Japan, near Tokyo, washing knives. He had no formal training, but his Spartan work ethic and Athenian creativity elevated him to stratospheric levels of significance in the restaurant world of Japan and later the U.S.
The soft-spoken sushi chef with an almost legendary devotion to quality, aesthetic appeal and freshness of flavors had been working towards opening his own restaurant for nearly 20 years. He insists that many Asian fusion restaurants have actually resulted in “confusion” and that his authentic Japanese cuisine is an antidote to the Americanized trifecta of hibachi, tempura and teriyaki. In other words, Zama is no more like Benihana than a Karaoke bar is like the Metropolitan Opera.
His encyclopedic menu includes a vast selection of sushi, sashimi, small bites, maki and numerous items most diners will probably not be familiar with such as kaiware sprouts, mitsuba leaf, myoga, espelette pepper aioli, nasu dengaku, kaiso salad, matcha, etc.
However, the quality of most seafood items is extraordinarily delicate and pristine, e.g., the black cod dice, a divine miso-marinated treasure served with a simmered, pickled root vegetable and Belgian endive ($14); fork-tender braised short ribs served with crispy ramen noodles ($10) and wasabi lobster, impeccable architectural mounds of incandescent Maine lobster spiced with wasabi and a tingly chili sauce ($18).
Those who find the menu daunting might want to order one of chef Tanaka’s tasting menus. In addition to the $55 and $75 chef’s tasting menus that have been available for quite a while, there are three new prix fixe options focusing on maki ($36), sushi ($39) and sashimi ($45).
In addition, since 2010, when he asked then-Eagles tackle Winston Justice to design his “Justice For All Roll” to benefit Variety, the children’s charity, Tanaka has raised more than $10,000 with celebrity-collaboration dishes that he has placed on the menu.
For example, one of his four current celebrity dishes is a combination of sushi with a classic Spanish paella, conceived with chef Jose Garces and called “Garces Chirashi.” Typically, chirashi (“scattered” in Japanese) is served as a lunch item in a bento box, but the Garces version includes head-on Madagascar shrimp, diver scallops, Spanish baby octopus, hamachi sashimi, madai sashimi and more.
We did try the “Zahav Roll,” created by Tanaka with Michael Solomonov, owner/chef of Zahav, the acclaimed Israeli restaurant in Old City. It is several mini-hand rolls wrapped in diaphanous soy paper and stuffed with albacore tuna sushi, accompanied by homemade sesame hummus with edamame felafel and a tart, citrusy (yuzu) sauce ($18). One dollar from each celebrity dish is donated to charity.
There were several tempting desserts, but we settled for a subtle, not-heavy trio of butterscotch bread pudding, banana spring roll and pumpkin pie Napoleon ($10) from pastry chef Judy Bruno.
The restaurant serves a wide variety of Japanese and domestic craft beers, as well as a lengthy list of sakes, wines and cocktails. A glass of aromatic Urban Riesling ($10) was a harmonious match for anything with wasabi, but the wine filled only the very bottom of the glass. (This is why BYOBs are so popular.)
Our server, Rachel, was delightful, as was a manager, John Pak, a Korean-American from Newtown Square with extensive hospitality experience in Las Vegas. The look of the 80-seat Zama was created by Jun Aizaki of Crème Design Collective, based in New York City. Aizaki has developed a reputation in Philly for his work on Jose Garces restaurants, Amada and Distrito.
There are backlit, light-colored maple wooden slats that frame the walls (they reminded us of picket fences, but one blogger called them a “chopstick-like covering”) and a dramatic hanging rice paper lantern shaped like a fish over the sushi bar where chef Zama oversees production. There is an eye-OK vaulted ceiling with a pattern reminiscent of a Japanese sand garden, and one thing I appreciate about Zama is the acoustics. Despite the crowd, the noise was never a problem, a rarity among contemporary restaurants.
Zama serves lunch Monday through Friday and dinner seven days a week. For more information or to make a reservation, visit www.zamaphilly.com or call 215-568-1027.