Zuma is a contemporary Japanese restaurant from London-based creator and co-founder Chef Rainer Becker. Located inside The Cosmopolitan, the concept, inspired by Becker’s personal and professional experiences in Japan, features informal izakaya dining that is authentic but not traditional. Becker delivers the subtleties of Japanese cuisine by heightening flavors and textures. He maintains the true essence of each ingredient in dishes designed to be shared. Since its London launch in 2002, Zuma has achieved global success and expanded to 11 locations in eight countries.
“After two openings on the East Coast, we decided that we were ready for a West Coast opening,” says Becker, who emphasizes that, since his first Zuma opening 14 years ago, there was never a plan to open more than the flagship London location. “Las Vegas was chosen, as it is incredibly vibrant and exciting but also extremely challenging,” he says, referring to the number of restaurants and chefs in Las Vegas.
Becker stands firmly by two attributes that drive his success: his customers and his team. “We have an incredibly loyal and discerning customer base,” he says. “Additionally, we have a core staff that is at the heart of Zuma.”
The Team: Living the Zuma Ethos
In Becker’s younger years, his interest in cooking was not encouraged. “My father decided it wasn’t much of a career, so in a bid to dissuade me, he sent me to his friend’s restaurant to wash [pots] one summer.” Instead, Becker’s interest grew deeper, and after working in classic and Michelin-starred restaurants, he moved to Japan to become the executive chef at Park Hyatt Tokyo. “My time living in Tokyo was invaluable. I immersed myself in the food and culture. For a Western palate, understanding and acclimatizing to the subtleties of traditional Japanese food can take a while-—at least it did for me—but once I got it, it blew my mind and I fell in love.”
Becker says he is fortunate to be surrounded by an incredible team. Many of his senior staff, both front and back of house, have been part of the Zuma family for years. “The Zuma culture is taught and spread by these individuals. Empowerment is important,” he says. Erick Melendez, the head chef in Las Vegas, for example, came from Zuma Miami and is in his sixth year with the company. The energy and team interaction is lively, and it’s heard by guests each night. When the sous chef calls out incoming orders, chefs respond with an affirmative “hai,” meaning “yes.” Food is prepared with zeal.
The Food: Japanese With Vigor
Zuma was born out of Becker’s ambition to offer Japanese food to a non-Japanese audience. From its three kitchens—the main kitchen, sushi counter and robata grill—the menu is focused on authentic Japanese dishes, but intensified. Woven throughout the menu are ingredients that Becker finds indispensable: “Soy sauce and miso are key, but also shichimi (powdered chili pepper seasoning), yuzu (a Japanese citrus fruit used for making sauces and dressings) and dashi, a fish stock. You can buy good-quality, ready-made versions from Japanese supermarkets, but we make our own,” he says.
Dishes unique to Las Vegas are still to come, but Zuma Las Vegas offers signature fare such as the suzuki no o sashimi—thinly sliced sea bass with yuzu, truffle and salmon roe. Other delectable selections include lobster tempura with spicy ponzu and wasabi mayonnaise; kinoko no kama meshi, a rice hot pot with wild mushrooms and Japanese vegetables; yaki toumoro koshi, a play on sweet corn with shiso butter, a Japanese festival food; and the refreshing watercress salad with fresh wasabi and cucumber.
The Design: Nature’s Elements
Zuma’s electric energy fits right in in Las Vegas, yet grounds guests with natural appointments—from the polished acacia trunk centering the dining room to the custom patchwork rice-paper wall behind the raised lounge/dining room. The interior design concept found at all Zuma restaurants revolves around earth, fire, water and air. Becker collaborated with designer Noriyoshi Muramatsu to emphasize the use of natural materials, juxtaposed with the bright lights and man-made structures on the Strip. “We have used a lot more wood on this project,” Becker says. “All of it was shipped from Chiang Mai in Thailand.” Each seat in the dining room has a view of one of the open kitchens, with the robata in the center.