Zuma’s menu reveals the art of Japanese Shibui
There are chefs who have done the rounds of high-end restaurants, crafting their skills, and then there are people like Pawel Viktorek. Spending time with Pawel, Zuma Bangkok’s newish Head Chef, is like taking an inspiring masterclass in the art of Japanese cuisine. It’s a foodie experience that encompasses art; the art of living—and eating, of course, which are in essence one and the same—and the concept of shibui.
To those uninitiated in this allusive term, “shibui” is about creating balance between simplicity and complexity, of letting purity shine through; an expression of the essence of quality. The stunning menu at Zuma is shibui on a plate, and the experience, at times, resonates with your whole being.
Pawel headed to England in 2002, just as Asian food was really taking off in London. Applying for a chef job at a Japanese restaurant, Pawel failed to cut spring onions to the native chef’s strict standards, but his enthusiasm paid off and he was given a chance. That chance turned into an opportunity of a lifetime and a whole new world of culinary adventure. The jobbing cook turned into a passionate chef.
“I was hooked,” he admits. “I carried a notebook and jotted down all the names of the fish in English and Japanese, and how you could prepare and eat them. I totally and unexpectedly fell in love with Japanese food. I was sent on trips to learn about food in Japan and discovered things you only get on the ground from the chefs and suppliers. I am just so passionate about Japanese food and seafood. I know everything about tuna. I have even been swimming with them!
“Real Japanese food is about pure, simple ingredients cooked in the best way to keep the natural flavours with some sophisticated techniques too of course,” he adds with a smile. “You need to take care with the ingredients, just as you would with a person. Japanese cooking is an attitude and an approach. I used to get really frustrated when I was asked to make the simplest tempura again and again because it wasn’t good enough. I didn’t understand at first, and then I did. Perfect tempura should look like seaweed moving in the water—an aesthetic, a piece of art. There is one school that teaches how to plate food only, and the course lasts four years!”
With branches around the world, the concept behind the Zuma brand is informal izakaya-style Japanese dining, and the contemporary Japanese plates are perfect for sharing. An open robata grill kitchen and large open seafood counter creates an element of uplifting activity at Zuma too that goes beyond the bland of some upmarket restaurants.
However, whilst it may be the fashion for Bangkok dining to be an immersive experience, it is the sheer quality of the dishes at Zuma that astound. Pawel’s impassioned understanding of Japanese ingredients and dishes, combined with an innate, down-to-earth flavour appreciation, skilfully creates what must be some of the city’s finest Japanese dishes. Even the cocktail menu gets a Japanese infusion. The Japanese Smoked Whisky Sour includes a touch of theatre as the giant ice-cube is branded at the table with the Zuma logo—a deliciously aromatic start. However, whilst the wine list is extensive, a sommelier suggesting special notes to elevate the menu would work well (as the house wine, while decent, does not necessarily add to the senses in the way a specially paired wine could).
A taste of the tomato ginger dressing and roasted eggplant features those strong Asian flavours that are so beloved, while the sashimi yellowtail sliced with green chili relish, ponzu, picked garlic is subtle, soft, and sophisticated.
So far, so good. Then something unexpected happens with the arrival of two pieces of seared O-Toro, special sushi with fresh wasabi and bonito flakes. Zuma zooms up to another level and never, ever has one bite of Japanese sushi ever tasted so good! It is so outstanding that the experience is almost emotional and there is more to follow. The black cod marinated with saikyo miso wrapped in hoba leaf is unbelievable, so much so that flakes of fish are eaten delicately just so the dish can last longer.
The 80 gram Japanese Wagyu sirloin—A4 grade with signature sauces and fresh wasabi—is simply extraordinary, and excels beyond the level of many high-end steak restaurants following the Wagyu trail. Finally, the Zuma signature Hokkaido style cheese tart, strawberry sorbet is light with a wonderfully balanced sweetness and matches the high quality of Zuma’s ever-so-special menu.
In a city that is far too often fixated on the latest trendy eatery, Zuma is, some six years after first opening in the high-profile St Regis Hotel, an experience that creates a foodie feeling that needs to be personally rediscovered to be truly appreciated.
Interview by Nadia Willan