Zuma in Manhattan is a nightclub where people sit and eat, not dance. Like the best nightclubs – its a Japanese restaurant by the way – it is hard wired to spike sexual behaviour: The music pulsates, the lights are forgiving, the senses bathed in alcohol and the palate honeyed by its offerings. The absence of mirrors meant that I did not see even one unmuscled hunk of a man. They were mostly big and black and cool. The women were drawn from a broader group of the human pool and came in various styles of dress and undress. They all seemed hotter than the hotate, the really large Japanese scallops that Zuma serves grilled with pickled plum, shiso and mentaiko butter. I can only speak about the latter when I say they melted in your mouth.
The lobster miso felt like comfort food and was a great combination of two soups I frequently have separately. Since black truffle was in season, we had the wild mushroom rice hot pot which comes in a wooden pot and ladle. The flavours were well balanced which I thought was pretty remarkable considering the sheer pressure under which this kitchen must be operating. Also, mixing mushrooms with truffles can be risky but here they struck distinct notes on the palate. We had truffle in the tuna tartare too and again, the mèlange was pure harmony. Then I asked where the truffle was sourced from, no answer came back. So, I asked again. Another member of the staff this time. Now I wasn’t expecting to be told it was from the Friday market in Carpentras, but when he returned with ‘Europe’, it really felt like you should do better when speaking about a dish that your patrons have paid sixty dollars to taste.
This is just one of the differences between Zuma and the Blue Hill restaurant, in Greenwich village which we went to the day after.
At Blue Hill, unlike Zuma, all the servers know exactly where all the ingredients have been sourced from. Not least because there is another Blue Hill restaurant about forty kilometers outside the city, in Westchester, which is on a farm where many of the ingredients are grown.
The two waiting staff assigned to our table were like Holmes and Watson picking on tiny clues and work all the way back to tell you about the un-criminal act. So, with the trumpet mushroom ravioli for instance, their darker hue was pointed out as evidence of the fact that these were no ordinary egg and durum wheat pasta. Instead, it was the trumpet mushrooms themselves, desiccated and ground, that were the base from which these ravioli were made. The result is a pretty startling resonance of the taste of the core ingredient which is in the raviolo, its filling, its sauce and its condiment.
The ambience at Blue Hill could not be more different from Zuma. The lights are as muted as the sounds and the voices. It is carpeted. It is not hip but it is housed in one of the remaining speakeasies in the city. These were enclaves frequented by drinkers during the Prohibition in the twenties. And, you know what? In a time when it seems so rare and unavailable to eat the pure, the organic, the gmo-free, the pesticide-free and the anti-biotic free, it felt just right to go to a place once frequented by those that sought what was prohibited in their time.
You do not just eat venison at Blue Hill. You eat the flesh of an animal that lived free and ate naturally. It was one of less than a dozen slaughtered annually. It was not treated in any way but brought from the place it fell to the kitchen that prepared it.
For those, like me, that feel the global appetite for meat is destroying the environment and subjecting animals to cruelty on an industrial scale, this is an acceptable manner of occasionally consuming a food we enjoy.
Editor’s note: Ask many chefs one of their favourite places to eat and many will mention Zuma. It is a Japanese chain of restaurants that can be found in cities from London, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Dubai, Bangkok, Rome, Phuket, Las Vegas and New York to mention just a few cities. It is the brainchild of Rainer Becker. It is known for serving dishes that are designed to share and inspired by an informal dining style of izakaya with thee kitchens.
Blue Hill on the other hand, opened in 2000 and is located in Greenwich Village, New York City. It is hidden three steps below street level, the restaurant occupies a landmark “speakeasy” just off of Washington Square Park. Blue Hill’s menu showcases local food and a wine list with producers who respect artisanal techniques. Ingredients come from nearby farms, including Blue Hill Farm in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, a forty-five minute drive from New York City. The latter opened in spring 2004 in Pocantico Hills and is considered among the best restaurants in the world. Dan Barber has helped to create the philosophical and practical framework for Stone Barns Center, a working four-season farm and educational center just 30 miles north of New York City, and continue to help guide it in its mission to create a consciousness about the effect of everyday food choices.
Georg Sapiano is a lawyer based in Malta. As he travels the world on work or play he indulges in two of his favourite pastimes: eating and writing.