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Zuma cum laude

South Florida Sun-Sentinel

★★★½

Four years after Zuma opened in downtown Miami's Epic Hotel, I still tell visitors to South Florida to put it on the top of their restaurant list. It is Japanese food at its best, small plate after gorgeous small plate, each offering a different take on Japan's culinary canon.

I awarded Zuma four stars three years ago. Food and service still merit all four stars. But there's something inhospitable about a restaurant that allows so many people inside its doors that moving from entrance to table makes you feel as if you've entered a crowded subway. The music is far too loud, and some of the tables are so tight that servers can't serve with any efficiency. Don't come here for intimate conversation.

Despite these distractions, wait staff intuits your every need. And the food? Let me know if you find better Japanese anywhere in South Florida.

While the food is divided into categories — robata beef, robata vegetable, robata skewers, signature dishes, tempura, salads, snacks and soups — dishes arrives in sensible order. Cold salads may come in a group. Meat dishes are spaced out.

Every table gets a main server, but food is delivered by a team of food runners who seem to know as much about every dish as the kitchen staff. One of the last items to arrive was rice hotpot with wild mushrooms and Japanese vegetables ($22.50). We'd certainly had our fill, but couldn't resist trying to scrape every crispy bit from the bottom of the pot.

Zuma is vegetarian-friendly, with one of the standouts being spicy fried tofu with avocado and Japanese herbs ($15.50). The tofu has a creaminess that works perfectly with the spice. Watercress salad with wasabi and cucumber ($10.50) turns an innocuous green into a wonder. Same goes for blanched baby spinach with creamy sesame dressing ($8.50). Sweet corn gets an almost minty assist from shiso butter ($9.50), and baby artichoke ($16) is served with a truffle-accented soy dressing.

For meat eaters, there's rib-eye steak with the same wafu sauce as the baby artichoke ($36.50). Tender and lean, the beef is served with addicting garlic chips. Tender, glazed baby-back ribs are served with cashews and scallions ($23.50). The ribs aren't overly sweet, like so many Asian ribs.

Seafood comes in multiple forms at Zuma. There's a fairly typical spicy yellowtail roll with serrano pepper and wasabi mayo ($17). Far less typical are grilled scallops with pickled plum, shiso and mentaiko or cod roe butter ($19.50). If you like fried soft-shell crab, order the version here with the bitter greens known as mizuna and wasabi mayonnaise ($14). Like most Japanese food, the kitchen never overdoes the wasabi or any other spice. Black cod ($36.50) is subtly flavored from its miso marinade, while rock shrimp gets a blast of flavor from lime and chili mayonnaise ($17).

For dessert, green tea and banana cake ($10) with coconut ice cream and toffee sauce is a standout for both the moist cake and the restrained toffee garnish. Yuzu Key lime pie ($12) is a Japanese take on the classic served with sesame-coconut tuile.

One more caveat before you book at Zuma. When you make your reservation, you'll be told that you have your table for two hours. Sure enough, a few minutes past the two hour mark at our table, we watched manager types circling. It was 10:30 on a Thursday night, and the place was still packed.

jtanasychuk@SouthFlorida.com or 954-356-4632. Read his blog at SouthFlorida.com/sup and follow him on Twitter at @FloridaEats.

Epic Hotel, 270 Biscayne Blvd. Way, Miami

305-577-0277, ZumaRestaurant.com

Cuisine: Japanese

Cost: Expensive

Hours: Dinner daily, lunch Monday-Friday, brunch Saturday-Sunday

Reservations: Strongly suggested

Credit cards: All major

Bar: Full service

Sound level: Very loud when full

Outside smoking: Yes

For kids: Highchairs, many kid-friendly menu items

Wheelchair accessible: Yes

Parking: Free valet at lunch; $15 at dinner

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