How Polyglot Can You Get?

An unlikely combination comes together for Hong Kong’s latest celebrity restaurant

It might seem an unlikely recipe for success: an izakaya-style, or informal Japanese restaurant started in London by a German restaurateur who got his start learning about Japanese cuisine when he was the executive chef of a French restaurant in Tokyo.

But Rainer Becker, the Teuton in question, pulled it off. Zuma, as everybody knows, became one of London’s hottest spots, famed, according to the guidebooks, for its “electric atmosphere.” It is a place where the haute mondain go to be seen – giving Mabel from Melbourne the opportunity to sit down next to the likes of Pierce Brosnan or others of his silky ilk.

Now, unlikely or no, Zuma has transported its first offshoot to Hong Kong, on two floors of the Landmark in Central. Almost immediately, it began to fill up with the territory’s own celebrity types, attracted possibly by sylph-like service staff so incandescent that they almost glow in the dark. That kind of atmosphere lured Reese to lunch. He got to sit by his wife.

The prospect of translating a highbrow restaurant from one city to another was pioneered by a restaurateur considerably lower of brow – Ray Kroc, who scattered nearly 24,000 fast-food restaurants across the world in 110 countries, or a new one every six hours – bringing world peace, according to the New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, who pontificated that no country with a McDonald's in it ever started a war with another country with a McDonald's in it.

Whether that’s true or not, Kroc revolutionized the world of fast food by guaranteeing that a Big Mac in London would look, taste and feel like a Big Mac in Manila or Maine. To do that, it meant that kitchens had to be exactly alike, that the portions had to be exactly the same, that the sesame seed buns would contain (roughly) the same number of sesame seeds.

Pierre Gagnaire, Joel Robuchon and Alain Ducasse, to name three celebrity chefs, were faced with the same challenge, if on a different level. How do you translate the ambience, quality of service and décor, not just the taste of the food? In Hong Kong, says Dan Segall, the executive chef of Zuma Hong Kong, it may be easier than it would be in other countries because of the territory’s wealth of seafood. But, he says, they tried local chickens, for instance, and they didn’t have the oomph. He is supplied by six flights a week from Japan, plus one flight a day from Australia. Lamb comes in twice a week. Another flight comes in every day from the United States, featuring black cod and king crab from Alaska as well as asparagus and other fresh vegetables.

“Some things – wild-caught tiger prawns from Vietnam, wild-caught tempura prawns from Australia, it is amazing that you can get all this stuff locally. But to find the best, we had to jump through hoops,” Segall says. “We could easily buy soft-shell crabs from Thailand at a good price, but the quality is terrible.”

Segall himself is an unlikely candidate to head a Japanese restaurant in Hong Kong. Born in Boston and schooled in theatre arts and directing, he ultimately decided that cooking was more satisfying. He made his way along the classic young chef’s circuit through Asia, doing fusion in Singapore, moving on to Bangkok where he was doing American fusion. There he was befriended by an American sushi chef who persuaded him to move on to Tokyo. And, like Rainier Becker himself, he fell in love with Japanese food.

So how is Zuma different from a traditional Japanese restaurant? It’s big, for one thing, covering 929 square meters with 70 tables, not to mention a robata counter (for food grilled over an open flame) and sushi counter plus a lounge and bar upstairs that holds another 95 drinkers. It is open, light, stylish and loud, since there are no linens on the tables. Chairs are overstuffed and comfortable. Designed by Noriyoshi Muramatsu of the Japanese design firm Studio Glitt, in collaboration with another Japanese design firm, Super Potato, it depends heavily on natural materials and lots of stone.

Be prepared to bring a loaded wallet. Ask for a glass of sparkling water and you get an impossibly stylish 800 ml bottle of Voss Norwegian artesian spring water (HK$75) – reputed to be gathered directly off glaciers in Scandinavia, but, according to the Voss website, enriched to make it bubbly. It’s the bottle that is astounding. If you’re a diner and you don’t take it home, it’s a surprise.

The menu itself at first glance hews pretty close to classic Japanese fare. There are two tasting menus for lunch – a “Daikoku” menu at HK$780 per person, a more elaborate “Benzaiten” menu at HK$1,280 per person. That’s before the water or the sake, of which there are a half-dozen types costing up to HK$1,200 for an 1800 ml bottle.

We said at first glance. The wagyu beef tartare, for instance, comes with a dollop of oscietre caviar and wasabi, which is hardly what pops up at the local sushi counter, nor is the seared, miso-marinated foie gras, nor the Boston lobster tempura .

Otherwise, Segall says, “We use authentic Japanese cooking techniques and ingredients, but we put them together in a different way. We do an incredibly traditional dish, gindara saikyo-yaki – black cod marinated in miso. But we make the marinade a little different. Then we serve it with a non-traditional sauce made from traditional ingredients – citrus, miso, wasabi, but black cod is not normally served like that. It’s non-traditional.”

You can get in and out of Zuma for less than what the tasting menu costs. There are daily lunch menus for a still-stiff HK$480 per person, or another featuring marinated lamb chops with pickeled onions and myoga, plus chicken wings with sea salt, grilled beef skewers and shiitake mushrooms with garlic, or even the miso-marinated black cod, for as little as HK$290, although the latter is available only for the full table. So bring lots of friends.

Are there plans for other Zumas? “There are plans for another maybe five or six,” Segall says. But there will be none in Tokyo. No way.