This new addition to University City serves as a fitting encore for one of Philadelphia’s most exciting chefs, Hiroyuki “Zama” Tanaka
by Brian Freedman

My friend Martin is as devotedly carnivorous as anyone I know, an aficionado of all the seemingly infinite permutations of seared and roasted and braised and grilled and otherwise cooked (and occasionally raw) flesh. Yet there he was on a recent November evening at coZara, joyfully scooping up bite after bite of … corn?

What was going on here? Easy: The deft touch and incisive mind of Hiroyuki “Zama” Tanaka, chef-owner of acclaimed Zama in Rittenhouse, and now of this University City izakaya.

Chef Zama’s genius with fish has been well documented. Arguably, no one is turning out better sushi and sashimi in Philadelphia than he is at his eponymous flagship on 19th Street. So when he opened coZara in April, the question everyone asked was this: How would he fair with such a different menu, with such a different concept?

Beautifully, it turns out, though he has since added sushi to the list of offerings. And that corn is a great example of the way in which so much of his food goes so right. Listed on the menu as tempura corn, it is, of course, both infinitely more than that and, at the same time, a distillation of all the pleasures of the very late season expression of the ingredient. (Editor’s note: The tempera corn is presently not on the menu, as corn is out of season.)

It arrived in a ceramic bowl looking like … well, a bowl of corn kernels. But each one had been encased in a gossamer-thin coating of delicate tempura batter, which didn’t so much overwhelm the texture of each delicate, snappy kernel—as tempura occasionally does in less practiced hands—as it did highlight it. And the application of togarashi butter was brilliantly calibrated. In some ways, it reminded me of a vaguely Japanese riff on the always popular Mexican dish esquites, only crispier.

Chef Zama and his team, including new executive chef Phila Lorn, are also crafting one of the most deeply comforting ramens around right now. Their mini paitan ramen, anchored by impossibly springy noodles, are lavished in a heady pork stock sliced through with black garlic oil. The broth would be enough to get me through another winter like we had last year, which is just what’s needed to cure all manner of flu bugs and illnesses. Add to that, however, meltingly tender slices of pork belly, the snap of a rib of baby bok choy and the transporting comfort of a shoyu (soy-marinated) egg, and what you have is a one-bowl ticket to gastro-heaven.

A recent addition to the menu, the whole-chicken yakitori, was good but not quite as exciting. On paper, it’s stunning, a gathering of “breast, thigh, skin, wings, drumstick, tenderloin, heart, gizzards, togarashi, yakitori sauce, hara-kiri hot sauce and honey mustard miso.” It arrived as dramatically as any entrée I’ve had recently, the patterning of the wooden skewers meeting on top at the main sail of crisp chicken skin, the whole construct resembling something that could be used in a battle scene in “Game of Thrones.” Indeed, that chicken skin is fabulous, all nutty and shattering at the slightest hint of pressure from the teeth. And those hearts were cooked beautifully—when, in the wrong hands, that particular muscle can so easily turn mealy and depressing. I loved the wings, too, their moist interiors encased in a perfectly charred shell of skin. The other skewers of meat tasted a little too similar to one another, and after a while it was difficult to differentiate them. The homemade hot sauce helped things along, as did the sweeter yakitori sauce, but I wanted just a bit more from some of the cuts of meat itself. Still, it was an enjoyable dish, just not quite as stunning as pretty much everything else we tasted.

Kushi skewers thrilled across the range. From soft-shell shrimp to earthy-sweet sausage to slightly too charred bacon-wrapped quail eggs, these take full advantage of the grill that uses porcelain briquettes to transmit its heat to the food. Indeed, with dishes like this it’s all too easy to spend an entire evening here, sipping from the well-chosen and fairly priced beer selection, exploring the range of shochu and shochu-based cocktails on offer. (I’d recommend the silky, sweet potato-based Satsuma Kuro Shiranami on its own, and the refreshing grapefruit Chu-Hi cocktail, with shochu, orange bitters and grapefruit juice.) It also boasts memorable desserts. The fried banana spring roll is remarkable, as are the Japan cakes—essentially red-bean flapjacks with green-tea crème crowns.

This is exactly the sort of place in which you’d want to while away a few hours: casual, friendly, comforting and exciting in just the right ratios and easy to get to no matter where you’re coming from. It all adds up to a great addition to the city’s dining scene, and a fitting follow-up from one of Philadelphia’s most exciting chefs.

3200 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia
267-233-7488 |

Photograph by Rob Hall