The Revisit: Eating Vetri at Zama

In The Revisit, Philadelphia Magazine restaurant critic Trey Popp turns his attentions to classic, underappreciated or overlooked restaurants in Philly and beyond. This month, he drops in for a meal at Zama in Rittenhouse Square.

“It happened first in Philadelphia” isn’t the common claim it once was, back when the Constitution’s ink was still sticky and George Washington ruled the realm from the 500 block of Market Street.  But you can say, without too much of a stretch, that it was one of the first American cities to turn its chefs into celebrities.  After all, when you don’t have any real celebrities, you have to work with what you’ve got.

Whether that’s the strict truth or just a poetic one, Philly today retains a brand of hometown chef fixation that you don’t see anywhere else.  For proof, take the menu at Zama.  Over and above the dragon rolls and miso bouillabaisse and tofu cooked tableside, pride of place goes to maki-style homages to Marc Vetri, Michael Solomonov, and Pierre Calmels.

The Vetri, Zahav, and Bibou rolls name-check the best Italian, Middle Eastern, and French restaurants in Philadelphia.  They also signal the sort of company Hiroyuki “Zama” Tanaka wishes to be considered alongside.  My wife and I went on a recent weekend evening to see whether he’s gotten there.

In a way, Tanaka didn’t really need to prove himself.  The Tokyo-born chef actually got his start at Genji, whose closure hit us hard in 2009.  By that point he had been ensconced for years at Pod—whose sushi, on the couple occasions I had it, exceeded the expectations set by its conveyer-belt delivery system.  Zama, where the wood-ribbed walls suggest bamboo makisu rolling-mats, casting a becalming if fragile spell over Rittenhouse’s smartphone-tapping social set, promised higher expectations.

A mild-mannered waiter dialed ours down a bit with his candid inability to translate most of the dozen or so “Japanese Classics” listed on the menu in Tanaka’s native tongue.

“I could go check,” he offered.  “Nobody ever orders them.”

Instead we settled on one word we both recognized—ume—and got a welcome surprise in the form of mild flounder tucked beside those nori-papered morsels of sweet-and-salty plum.  That roll turned out to be the perfect antidote to a wholly different surprise: the thrill shot of wasabi stowing away in a raw octopus roll.  It scorched my frontal sinuses like a stripped electrical wire, slapped me straight on the forebrain, and made my face quiver like a B-movie bad guy over-acting a snort of cocaine.  My wife laughed.  Then cried—but only out of her right eye, as her dose of wasabi worked its own head circuit.

Dialing up laughter and tears was probably the only way to surpass—in terms of memory if not flavor—the preceding dish.  The Vetri roll, wisely served as a course unto itself, is as sublime a tribute as I can imagine one chef paying to another.  Eel is bundled with shiso and scallions in a watercrisp daikon wrapper.  Perched atop is cucumber transformed into noodles thinner than capellini—as thin, come to think of it, as the fake angula eels one finds in Spain (the overfished genuine article having become insanely expensive).  Zama’s cucumber noodles are dressed with uni sauce.  The daikon-sheathed rolls are drizzled with a truffled eel sauce whose initial pungency tapers off elegantly, replaced by the sweet smear of bruleed uni you’ve dragged the roll through on the way to your tongue.  This is, without doubt, the most luxuriously delicious fusion sushi I’ve ever tasted.

Zama’s shortrib dish is likewise a beautiful thing.  The dark cube of Kirin Ichiban-braised beef wears a miso-mustard glaze patterned into a shiny slick of wavey stripes that wouldn’t be out of place in a French pastry case. The meat was chopstick tender, all the fat having either melted into (or off of) the tender shreds that peeled away into a crunchy nest of deep-fried ramen noodles.

If we could’ve stopped it halfway through, our meal would have been twice as enjoyable as it turned out to be.  Instead, the minutes ticked by as a current of freezing air poured down my shirt from an overhead air-conditioning register.  The spring evening had been just warm enough to walk through without a sweater.  An hour into dinner, I needed a parka.  My wife was fine—the stream of condensed air was just missing her—but dinner service had meantime slowed to a slug’s crawl.

Of the seared hamachi over a tempura-battered avocado roll, I mainly remember the goosebumps rubbing uncomfortably against my long shirtsleeves.  A bright-red sheet of pounded big eye tuna strewn with wasabi leaves and overdosed with truffle oil took so long to come, and was so not worth the wait, that our server struck it from our bill.  Which was a kind and sensitive gesture—but all things being equal I’d have rather been comfortable enough to order dessert.  We hurried out instead.

Judged by his best creations, Tanaka belongs in the company of the chefs to which his menu alludes.  His restaurant, however, has shortcomings that really ought to be fixed.  Maybe more people would order his Japanese classics if the servers knew what they were—or if they were advertised with supplemental English, which would hardly constitute a trespass against authenticity considering that the rest of the menu is in English.  I neither expect nor want sushi to be produced with conveyor-belt speed, but more careful coursing might have alleviated the back-up on the night we went—which wasn’t all that crowded. Also, air temperature matters.

That said, I was surprised by the value at Zama, which I did not expect at all.  Without that pounded tuna (which we didn’t need anyway) but with a cloudy carafe of splendid tokubetsu junmai nigori saki, our bill came to $115.  Not cheap, mind you, but for a meal that was exemplary in many (though not all) ways, it was a strong argument for coming back.  When I next hear the beckoning call of the Vetri roll, I’ll just have to answer it wearing long underwear.

Zama [Official website]

Zama’s Philly mag review [phillymag.com]