Everyone loves a bit of cherry blossom. It’s a rite of passage for new arrivals in Hong Kong to make a pilgrimage to Tokyo or, preferably Kyoto, in springtime. The wonders of Ueno Park, people camped out underneath the Sakura trees. I’ll never fully understand the cultural resonance, suffice to say that there is something very moving about a genuine national obsession with the briefest and arguably most unremarkable of natural phenomena.
Of course its resonance spreads far beyond Japan, not least to Hong Kong. Here it becomes part of a marketing campaign, but then again so does pretty much every aspect of Japanese culture at some point. Zuma in Central is marking sakura season with a special festival menu running until April 14. An invitation to try it reminded again how Zuma is unfailingly consistent, with some genuinely brilliant dishes across the tasting menu. If you get a chance, it’s absolutely worth trying before it melts away into the humidity and heat of late April.
It kicks off with a cocktail crafted by their bar development manager, the wonderfully-named and affable Pole Arkadiusz Rybak. His Sakura Hanami Martini (HKD100) is a drink I know better than most thanks to a recent article I wrote for Tasting Kitchen magazine where he explained every step of the process, a convoluted and time-consuming effort using equipment that definitely gives him an air of the benevolent mad scientist. Which is not surprising given his time working at The Fat Duck, under you know who.
It’s a beautiful drink, utterly crystal clear, save for a single sakura blossom floating on top. Ketel One is carefully distilled with sakura blossom oil, roasted rice sake, Japanese gin and Mancino Blanco vermouth. I wouldn’t normally quote from press releases, but he essentially told me as much when I interviewed him – and he’s bang on:
“With the Sakura Hanami Martini, I designed it to resemble water to display its purity, but the taste surprises guests through different layers of flavours, intensity and aroma.”
Thereafter come a succession of hits, some bespoke for the menu, others Zuma favourites, all beautifully plated. Service throughout is excellent. There have always seemed to be a lot of staff working at Zuma, so it’s never difficult to get their attention, while many of them seem to be concerned with ensuring those who have over-indulged at their famous brunch don’t fall down the spiral glass stairwell or the step by reception, something which has seen many a reveller go arse-over.
It’s not an epic 5 hour Tasting Menu (yes you, Pollen in Singapore, til 1am) where you’ve visibly aged by the end, but takes just over a couple hours. It’s also well-balanced in portion and flavours, so you leave just the right side of satiated. There’s no written menu as dishes are described individually when they’re bought to you.
Tuna with yuzu, garlic and chilli. Strong flavours all, but none of them take the lead and somehow balance one another.
Next some fine and thin strips of seared wagyu beef with black truffle oil and pretty shiso. Truffle oil is a great divider, with many chefs saying they don’t use it. From a flavour profile it may not be fresh truffle, but here it accentuates the beef and is used sparingly so it doesn’t overpower. Excellent sushi and sashimi, followed by a grilled scallop with spicy cod roe and more shiso, another brilliant mouthful. That Zuma grill has been their global passport to success – and with good reason. Everything from it is perfectly cooked, nowhere more so than one of their signatures up next, grilled Chilean sea bass with green ginger dressing:
If you’ve eaten at Zuma, chances are you’ve tried it. If not, you need to. But then the bar is raised again with the next course of snow crab tempura. Fresh and sweet Japanese crab legs, crunchy seasoned light tempura coating, a squeeze of charred lime. You know the rest. Brilliant eating:
For a Monday night of a holiday weekend, the place is busy. It’s always busy, so the music is key and they’re on the money with highlights including Giving it All by Bondax and a funked up Bill Withers classic:
It’s playing as the seared cubes of wagyu with no fewer than three sauces are bought to the table. The sauce with sesame seeds and sweet soy is my winner, but I’d happily bathe in all three.
After a final savoury course, a cleansing lobster soup with decent levels of spice, it’s dessert in the form of Molten cheesecake with wild Japanese strawberries. Cheesecake I hear you cry, meh. But no. This is an unusual, clever and unique dish that we absolutely loved. Tokachi cream cheese is like oozing camembert in consistency, if with a slightly milder flavour. It’s warm and melting within a biscuit shell, crowned with a sakura mochi and sorbet. Wow.
The last hurrah is a selection of peerless Japanese fruit, cut and prepared. The special ten course Sakura menu is $1,380, including the cocktail or a non-alcoholic version, and runs through 14 April only.
ZUMA Restaurant (Level 5)
Monday – Friday: 12.00 – 14.30
Monday – Sunday: 18.30 – 23.00
Saturday & Sunday: 11.00 – 13.00 & 14.00 – 16.00