Zuaya London, restaurant review: When fusion doesn't mean confusion
As the idea of sharing plates looms large across the restaurant world, Ibrahim Salha wonders when there will be a time you can fit them all on one – well designed – but tiny table at a new restaurant with a melting pot of cuisines
There are few words that typically strike fear in the hearts of restaurant-goers as much as “fusion”. Often-maligned for being a deflective term that hides a lack of direction and even imagination, fusion cuisine is still tainted by associations with the 1970s – and the less said about food in that decade, the better.
Perhaps that’s why Francisco Lafee, the head chef at Zuaya, wants to make clear that this isn’t your ordinary fusion restaurant. “I want fusion without confusion,” he says proudly — and, possibly, with more than a hint of hope that diners will be convinced.
Lafee certainly has the CV to make it work: stints at the wonderful Barrafina and the one-time ‘World’s Best Restaurant’, El Celler de Can Roca, are an impressive grounding and a major draw for any new opening.
Neither of those, you might be aware, are fusion restaurants though. They’re heavily, unashamedly, rigorously Spanish; Basque, if you wish to be even more specific.
That doesn’t appear to be an issue when you taste the food, as he’s clearly a chef with a vision, evident from the first bite of pão de queijo, presented in lieu of a bread course. It crudely translates to ‘cheese bread’, but it’s more than the sum of its parts and is a wonderfully dense and slightly chewy version of the Brazilian classic, here topped with guava jam to great effect.
Of the starters, we enjoyed the purple taco, the ‘tortilla’ as thin and pliable as a crepe and filled with slowly-braised lamb shank. Visibly and conceptually a Mexican street food dish, this really proved the case for fusion: the lamb was flavoured with ras el hanout spices typically found in Morocco while the coriander and smoked pineapple moved it into al pastor territory.
Ceviche also features prominently on the menu. The house ceviche will be familiar to anyone who has had the dish before, but the version at Zuaya showed off some impressive ingredients. Stone bass that was filleted from whole sits among a mix of tiger’s milk (the citrus marinade that ‘cooks’ the fish) and various fruits: cherry, raspberry, orange and pink grapefruit. It’s a safe, but delicious, introduction to Peruvian cuisine that I would see myself ordering again.
Although some chefs and diners alike have expressed their feelings that small plates have ‘been done’ (notably Dan Doherty, of Duck & Waffle fame) the sharing concept still runs strong through a lot of new openings, including Zuaya. The menu is laid out into starters, mains and desserts, but you’re instructed that the dishes should be shared between the table. This makes perfect sense considering the sizes of the starters, but runs into trouble with the main courses. The practicalities are worth knowing about: it’s a stunning restaurant, designed with a meticulous eye for luxury, but the tables are somewhat small if you’re sharing big steaks and fish.
The turbot, for example, is well cooked and benefits from being among the freshest you’re likely to try outside of Cornwall, but it’s served on a wooden block which takes up most of the table. It’s also not filleted at the table by the staff, which means you’ll probably be awkwardly leaning over your dining companions at some stage. Likewise, the ribeye steak is served on another wooden slab and takes up a fair amount of room. Nevertheless, it’s a lot easier to share as it’s served pre-sliced and shows off a fine touch with the robata grill.
Desserts, meanwhile, threaten to steal the show, particularly the quindim. It’s a coconut flan, that’s elevated by being served alongside a coconut sorbet and topped with a wonderfully light coconut meringue/biscuit hybrid. It’s a nice and subtle way to end the meal, although fans of Instagramming their dessert would be better off ordering the dulce de leche. The caramel-like spread plays second fiddle to fresh milk ice cream, Iranian candy floss and the same guava jam that came with the pão de queijo; you end the meal in the same way you started it.
Ultimately, this luxury also bleeds into the prices, which were slightly too high, even for the area and the quality of the cooking. It doesn’t feel like you’re getting much value – perhaps the most crucial ingredient for consumers in an increasingly difficult market.
Zuaya has recently revised (read: lowered, and introduced attractive set menus at various price points) its prices, helping make this a restaurant worth seeking out for the level of cooking coming out of the kitchen.
Zuaya London 35 Kensington High St, London W8 5BA; 020 7938 3533; open daily