Dark horse

Serious sushi at Zuma, plus news about town

The first "real" sushi I ate was in New York City 25 years ago. The friend who took me to the tiny restaurant, whose name I have long forgotten, warned me that it was a kind of "Studio 54 sushi bar."

I'll say. The owner-sushi chef was a young man wearing Mickey Mouse ears who screened patrons at the door. One end of the sushi bar was also a DJ's booth where he played a very weird combination of music, from Wagner to Bowie. The chef took a liking to me, fed me every bizarre morsel he could find, and I took an instant liking to sushi.

"You're so cool," my friend, 20 years my senior, said when we left the restaurant over three hours later.

"Yeah, I know," I said, craning my neck and looking up while I walked, like every redneck visitor to New York overcome by the sight of skyscrapers.

Sushi, probably because of its association with trendy Japanese culture, continues to be associated with coolness. And the newest example of that in our town is Zuma (701 Highland Ave., 404-522-2872). Located in the latest development of pricey apartments to spring up overnight, instantly gentrifying a formerly funky area, Zuma (which means "strong horse") is all about coolness. Late hours — 2:30 a.m. on weekends and 12:30 a.m. during the week — and a decor that is midnight-black punctuated by vivid red lanterns and plasmas TV screens airing Japanese videos should appeal to the Armani crowd. The staff itself is solicitous and beautiful. On our way out, Wayne burst into Japanese thank-yous, bowing and smiling, and each of the staff bumped heads with him. He is so cool.

The sushi bar is located at the far end of the restaurant here and, honestly, is a bit claustrophobic. You don't really have a good view of the chef working and you have no view of the dining room. The chef, however, is a friendly guy who will tolerate endless questions.

Like MF Sushi, Zuma limits itself strictly to sushi and sashimi — so this is serious business. Even Soto, where the city's best sushi is found, fleshes out its menu with other Japanese dishes. For the most part, we found Zuma's sushi first-rate. Among nigiri, you need to bite the pricey bullet and spend the $12.50 for two pieces of otoro, the fatty tuna belly that just about dissolves in your mouth. Everything is plated with decent artistry here and the otoro was served with a bird's nest of lotus root topped with salmon roe (which actually was too strongly flavored with the otoro). Unagi, smoked eel, is also worth ordering. Whatever you order, you should also order freshly grated wasabi root, whose flavor is relatively mild and radish-like compared to the usual paste you dissolve in your soy sauce.

Rolls were a mixed success. A spider roll was completely forgettable, the soft-shell crab obviously cooked earlier, so that it lacked the crackling salty juiciness it should have. A salmon skin hand roll was better but it too lacked the appropriate texture of well-toasted salmon skin. But a roll of eel and snow crab with avocado, our server's recommended fave, was delectable.

The best thing we ordered was the sashimi assortment — tuna, yellow tail, red snapper, mackerel and sweet shrimp plus one or two others. The fish was all high-quality, mellow tasting and attractively served over big Japanese mint leaves.

Another big draw here is a sake menu that likely has no equal in the city. About 30 sakes are available by the bottle at a wide variety of prices. One will set you back $150. But there is also a very good home brew that costs next to nothing.

Here and there

Next door to Zuma is a new sandwich shop and market called Cafe Karis. It's a handsome space with a few tables for sipping good coffee and eating a deli wrap or traditional sandwich. (There is also free wireless Internet connection.) The market area is half-gourmet, half-7/11. You get your Rice Krispies and you get your Ily coffee. ...

Todd Semrau, owner of the Heaping Bowl and Brew and Six Feet Under, has announced plans to open The Automatic, a cafe with a drive-through, on Boulevard in Grant Park. ...

A recent lunch at Eclipse di Luna offered some tasty tapas but the menu seems to have been abbreviated greatly. The chef who made such a difference there and left more than a year ago, Nancy Delgado, has now left Twist where she developed some of that restaurant's more interesting specials. ...

I lunched at Brasserie le Coze last week with my friend Brad Lapin, home from Rome for a few months. The restaurant has changed its menu yet again and our server kissed his fingers and sang the praises of a bufalo mozzarella the restaurant is serving. He insisted we sample it and see if we didn't want to order it as an appetizer.

"You know," Brad whispered, "you can't get decent fresh mozzarella in this town. Even in Italy, by the time it gets from the country to Rome, it has lost its edge. And of course, if it's imported from Italy here, it loses everything."

The server returned with a slice of the cheese. "It is imported from Italy," he said.

Brad shot me a look. His fork flew to the stuff. "See! Just a tragedy! Not at all, not at all. You must understand," he told the flustered server, "I live in Rome! This will not do!"

Actually, to my plebian palate, the stuff tasted about 10 times better than the average rubbery stuff around town. It's far better than the expensive imported mozzarella at Whole Foods. But other friends tell me they have bought the best they've ever tasted in the city recently at Alon's Bakery.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or email him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.

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