A new Japanese restaurant plays hot and cold on the Square.
Like the dinosaurs, the cheap bento boxes of Center City are going extinct. All of a sudden, the Cali rollers are rolling, eager to shut down and re-brand for a hipper generation of sushi connoisseurs. Aoi became Aki. Sakana, Jay’s Favorite. Locust Street standby Shinju has moved and morphed into Fat Salmon, complete with color-changing walls. Modern kaiseki feasts are unfolding with live scallop sashimi and compressed pomelo at newcomer Ro-Zu. Meanwhile, at Maru Global, the order is takoyaki, savory Munchkin-like spheres filled with fruits de mer.
Hot or cold, raw or cooked, Japanese food in Philadelphia hasn’t had a moment like this since Morimoto opened in 2001.
Zama joined the new guard of maki maestros in December, and the Jun Aizaki interiors are predictably gorgeous. A backlit ribcage of blond maple planks frames the narrow, stepped dining room, the stunning wood choice echoed by butcher blocks tables and the slatted fences that divide them like stalls on a sexy Noah’s Ark. Two by two, the pretty humans enter. A lucky eight score seats at sushi bar’s crosscut tree trunk counter, where the tricky plastic chopsticks rest on concave ceramic ottomans and the omelet nigiri and the maple board on which it might be served are literally branded with the restaurant’s name.
Zama is as manicured as the nails of a Rittenhouse socialite, but make no mistake, this sushi sanctuary, a foxtrot north of the Square, was built with dishpan hands. Back when owner and chef Hiroyuki “Zama” Tanaka first started in the sushi trade in Kanagawa, Japan, just outside Tokyo, he washed knives before he ever took one to a loin of tuna. With no formal training, he worked his way up the ranks and eventually crossed the Pacific, taking local posts at Genji and Pod, where he worked for eight years before his solo debut.
At Zama, Tanaka takes his rightful place at the sushi bar, and raw is the restaurant’s forte. Sixteen pieces of sashimi have never looked as good as they did on Zama’s frost-white unfurled scroll of a plate, each precise slice of fish shimmering like iridescent gemstones. Beyond wasabi, there were attractive and functional accoutrements for each: shiso taming oily Spanish mackerel, slender pea shoots for buttery coral-pink kanpachi and more. Yellowtail, tuna, salmon, Japanese mackerel, branzino and red snapper rounded out the cast. Not terribly exciting for a restaurant this fashionable—murderously, I ogled the live scallops, to no avail—but I willingly admit, impeccable fish, no matter how familiar, never go out of style.
The pristine virginity of Zama’s fish is a credit to the Japanese sub-zero freezer that stores the swimmers at negative-65 degrees Celsius. Fish come in whole and are broken down in house. The freezer inhibits waste, a green fact that eases my intermittent carbon guilt about eating far-far-away fish in the first place. Of course, if you’re feeling particularly shameful about your footprint, the sushi chef might suggest the Bronzizzle, a Snoop-speak inside-out roll as delicious as it is eye-catching. It features lovely branzino in a starring role, dabbed with yuzu-pepper paste, draped over avocado and cucumber maki and hit with hot sesame oil. The chef—not Tanaka—told me the fish was local. I can assure you, it ain’t.
It’s delicious though, which goes for most anything served up at the sushi bar. The slab of tree is where I’d most like to spend time in Zama, despite it adjoining a square cocktail bar—get the summery yuzu gimlet, one of General Manager Bryon Phillips’ exotically-accented sips—and service station where the chummy staff tended to congregate during my dinner. Unlike the sushi, the hot side of the menu was a sobering reality check that nifty conceits like crystals of house-smoked soy can’t rescue overcooked edamame and how black-hog Kurobuta pork—tucked into what were probably the prettiest, daintiest, croissant-shaped dumplings I’ve ever seen—is essentially no better than Hatfield if it’s underseasoned.
There were some successes: suitably tender bok choy, creamy tofu cooked tableside and pastry chef Judy Bravo’s vivid yuzu crème brûlée with mango salad. Enough to be a hot-and-cold double-threat? Not yet, but certainly enough to make Zama a welcome addition to our new clan of chic sushi sanctuaries.
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128 S. 19th St. 215.568.1027.
Follow on Twitter: @zamasushibar
Hours: Mon.-Thurs., 11:30am-10pm; Fri., 11:30am-11pm; Sat., 5pm-11pm; Sun., 5pm-9pm.
Atmosphere: Sleek and Zen-chic as a boutique Tokyo hotel.
Food: Serious sushi, but lukewarm hot items.
The Sichuan spice is like crack to this foodie.