How does an international brand open in Las Vegas with a look and design that feels right at home? Enter Zuma, the Japanese izakaya with a robata grill and sushi bar that opened last year at the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. Back in December, the restaurant won the Eater Award for the Design of the Year in 2017.
Founder and chef Rainer Becker originally opened the restaurant in London in 2002 after spending six years working in Tokyo to discover the food and culture.
In Las Vegas, the 9,000-square-foot restaurant uses four natural elements of earth: fire, water, air, and raw materials for its decor. The lounge features a backlit paper wall composed of reds and oranges, sourced from Japan and personalized by Studio Glitt. The booths there feature custom-made fabric from Turkey.
The wood used in the tables, sushi, and robata logs and bar tops are comprised of wood from the Acacia family grown in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Some elements, such as the adornments on the walls and a large vase at the entrance are handcrafted by Arita-San, who also created the selection of the china including the large sushi and robata plates.
Cutout metal lanterns made in Milan make up the columns along the front glass wall of the restaurant and are used as room separators.
Brazilian granite floors in the dining room and Pui Fai stone from a quarry in Chiang Mai can be found throughout the room, while the private dining rooms seating 14 each come encased by two glass walls with views of the Las Vegas Strip.
All fabric found within the restaurant is sourced from Turkey, to complement the furniture that was crafted in the Padova region of Italy.
Here, Becker talks about the first year of Zuma and what the restaurant plans in the future.
How did Zuma finally come together in Las Vegas?
We opened two restaurants on the East Coast in Miami and New York, and so a restaurant on the West Coast was the natural next step. We chose Vegas specifically due to the volume of restaurants and exceptional chefs already there, it was a huge challenge. There is nowhere else in the world like it. It’s so vibrant.
What made you decide to open at the Cosmopolitan?
When we visited Vegas looking at sites, I really loved the vibe of the Cosmopolitan. It is young and has an exciting energy, I also really liked their dinning setup, having all the restaurants in one area really makes it an accessible destination for guests. We felt at home.
With such an enormous empire of restaurants, how do you make each one unique? Or do you want diners to find the same experience at each one?
A mix of both, I suppose. Consistency is key; all the restaurants need to maintain the same level of quality when it comes to the product and the service; our guests demand that of us and we strive to deliver. Other common threads are that all Zumas have three kitchens — sushi, robata and main. The layout is also similar, each featuring the restaurant (of course), bar, lounge, and counter seating.
The design is the unique element of each restaurant. This is dictated by the location and city, the energy, the culture, and the clientele. I have worked closely with our designer Noriyoshi Muramatsu since we opened London in 2002 and no matter how many projects we have collaborated on, when we are opening a new restaurant we still start from scratch each time.
Do you experiment with a dish in one location and then introduce it to other locations?
Yes sometimes. We work on new and seasonal dishes in the restaurants several times a year. When one of them sells particularly well and is a favorite with the guests, then it can go on the menu in other locations. The Chilean sea bass is a great example. This was developed in Dubai years ago and is now listed on our menus internationally.
What have you learned in the first year of running Zuma in Las Vegas?
Wow, so much. The market is completely individual, it’s a very tourist based city and with your average stay only 3.4 to 4.4 nights. You have to work harder to ensure that you are top of people’s minds.
What were you thinking about in terms of design of the restaurant?
As a city, Vegas is adrenaline charged with bright lights and man-made structures. Nori and I wanted to focus on natural materials and create a juxtaposition. The restaurant heavily features wood and granite with less steel and glass than in our other projects.
What was the menu testing process like? Are you offering different dishes in Las Vegas then say New York City or London?
The majority of the menus are the same internationally, as I mentioned individual locations have their own new and seasonal dishes, which they create with their teams. The menu in Vegas is pretty similar to our other menus, although it may be more steak heavy than some locations. After a year of learning what sells in Vegas and what our customers want we are in the process of creating Vegas specific dishes to add to the menu. Watch this space.
Has Vegas embraced the restaurant?
I hope so. The restaurant has been hugely successful in the first year although not all smooth sailing. We have had to find our way in a new city but we feel very at home in Vegas and love being part of the community.
Six months in, what changed?
It seems so long ago now but a few elements of note were the changes we made to our private dining rooms, which provided us with more flexibility. We also made changes to the menu, bringing on more meat and steak dishes as I said previously.
What’s the must-order dish of the moment?
I am a creature of habit. I’m afraid so I will always say the baby chicken, although the robata grilled king crab is a current favorite of mine, too.
What’s on tap for the future?
With Zuma we are focusing our expansion in the United States, but we will only ever open the maximum of one a year. We have just opened our new restaurant Inko Nito in LA, which is a casual, approachable concept specializing in more unconventional robatayaki dishes; we aim to open more of these and expand our other brands too.
• All Coverage of Zuma [ELV]