Rittenhouse Square has long needed a destination Japanese restaurant—a place that combines the vibrancy of South Jersey’s Sagami with the quality of fish and spirit of invention of Wash West’s Morimoto (minus that restaurant’s dated theatrics). So I was cautiously optimistic about the opening of Zama.
Chef/owner Hiroyuki “Zama” Tanaka worked for Stephen Starr at Morimoto and Pod, where he was executive sushi chef. At Tanaka’s first solo venture, the contemporary room, with its blond wood slats and luminous papier-mâché fish dangling from the ceiling—all brought to you by Jose Garces’s favorite designer, Jun Aizaki—sets a restrained stage for a menu that announces this isn’t your granny’s sushi joint.
Some of the food delivers on that promise. The miso soup was one of the better versions I’ve tasted, with an unusual depth of flavor and unexpected al dente cubes of carrot and daikon. Shrimp wrapped in deep-fried tofu skin was moist and pleasantly salty; a crispy -salmon-skin salad in a sesame vinaigrette was well-balanced.
Generally, sushi is the way to go here. A sushi–connoisseur friend deemed the California roll the best he’d ever had, and an inside-out mango/-jalapeño/yellowtail roll was a surprising juxtaposition that worked. A seared bronzino roll dressed with yuzu soy sauce and hot sesame oil also impressed, while the $65 chef’s selection of sushi and sashimi included a satisfyingly crunchy rendition of a spicy tuna roll. More exotic offerings during my visits included a giant clam, which had a just-out-of-the-ocean gleam and freshness of flavor.
Staff-to-customer communication could be improved. Several of the sushi-bar items we had ordered à la carte, including seared mackerel, were duplicated in our chef’s selection. The chef could have adapted his picks to avoid redundancy; since he didn’t, we should have been informed of the potential conflict by our waiter. Service was spotty in other ways. On one visit, the server was lethargic; on another, our cheerful waiter had a command of the menu, but repeatedly put his fingers uncomfortably close to our food as he pointed out each kind of fish on the platter. Between courses, our dirty table remained unwiped for a distractingly long time.
Many of the hot dishes seem like afterthoughts. Tempura vegetables are crisp, but otherwise unexceptional. Pedigreed Kurobuta pork appears in the dumplings, but any porky particularity of flavor is muffled by too-heavy deep-fried wrappers. A $27 seared halibut entrée special was ho-hum and under-portioned; the accompanying bok choy was bland. Desserts aim for interesting, with varying degrees of success; the yuzu crème brûlée was tasty, but the chocolate bombe seemed too refrigerated.
Zama’s not yet worth a special trip, but if it starts to realize its potential, it could become the sushi place Center City needs.