Many years ago, when I was still new to the food blogging lark and lived a relatively sheltered life away from the capital, a friend told me about a sensation that was sweeping the country – Wagamama. Back then the notion that there was oriental food other than Chinese and sushi, and that you might sit on benches elbow-to-jowl with complete strangers to eat your food outside of school dining rooms was rather novel. Hard to imagine these days when you can hardly turn a corner without bumping into a noodle bar, but as it turns out, when I discovered it Wagamama wasn’t new at all – their first restaurant opened in 1992.
Quality chain restaurants are one of the restaurant trends of the past decade which I genuinely am happy for (although I know there are some who think they’re anathema). The likes of Wagamama, Itsu, and Pizza Express may not serve haute cuisine, but they all serve tasty food at a reasonable price, and you can be sure that the menu item you loved in Birmingham will be just as tasty as the one you have in Edinburgh. True, you can make the same boast about McDonalds (although maybe not with the word ‘tasty’ included), but Wagamama and its fellows serve real food cooked by real chefs and it’s still as consistent as the nasty slop pumped out by the machines at Burger HQ factory.
Nowadays, living in London and over-exposed to a wealth of restaurants so vast it would take a lifetime to scratch the surface, I still find myself going back to Wags (as its known both in my household and at work) on a regular basis, and I’m not the only one. Scarcely a week goes by without a group from work having lunch there, and visiting friends on the lookout for a pre-theatre bite are always drawn to the now familiar black, white and red sign which seems to be on every second street. The secret with Wagamama is to stick to the core menu – there are dishes on there which are iconic for a reason. Katsu curry is so universally popular that, now that they’ve introduced a vegetarian version, at a recent lunch with twelve other people all but one of them ordered it. I don’t order it anymore, but that’s because I became so addicted to it my husband and I devoted insane amounts of time to working out the top-secret recipe, and now I cook it at home instead.
For the novices amongst you, I thought I’d revisit my original trip to Wagamama, formerly published on Souperior at its old Blogger home, republished here [with edits] out of pure nostalgia.
Wagamama – 15th October 2005
Last weekend yielded a trip to London with some friends to see Fame. Never able to visit the capital without taking advantage of the excess of wonderful places to spend ridiculous amounts of money on food, we elected to try Wagamama in Covent Garden (on the basis that if we liked it there is also one in Birmingham which is close enough to be frequented regularly). I’d heard a lot about Wagamama (did you know it means ‘selfish nation’?) and had mixed expectations. The words ‘canteen style’ come up most often in the things I’ve read about it and you do indeed sit at communal long tables, on hard wooden benches, just like at school. Early on Friday evening the place was already packed (and by the time we left the queue at the door nearly wound out onto the street) and we were placed between two different parties – a couple with young children and a group of Americans. I suspect one’s enjoyment of this style of seating depends largely on how pleasant the people around you are. My hopes were shrinking when I saw the brats *ahem* children, but they were as perfectly behaved as one could hope for and completely failed to dribble food over themselves or spit out choice morsels onto their parents’ plates.
The three of us ordered a main and a small dish each (they don’t ‘do’ starters, food arrives as and when it’s cooked), to get a good cross-section of the menu. The ‘small’ dishes began with Duck Gyoza – deep fried dumplings of duck, the meat was tender and delicately spiced, the gyoza pastry dry and crisp, and the sweet-sharp dipping sauce lifted it beautifully. The next little dish was Tori Kara Age – delicious fried pieces of chicken which had been marinated in sake, soy, thyme & oregano and was served with a most delectable dipping sauce of chilli, garlic and soy.* Crisp on the outside and meltingly tender on the inside, I could have eaten a mammoth portion of these, and although they have published the recipe in their cookbook, attempts to recreate them at home have never matched the ones in the restaurants.
The last of the small plates was Ebi Gyoza – deep fried (I realise we set a bit of a theme here, it really wasn’t intentional) king prawn dumplings. These were too fishy for me, but my companion enjoyed them very much and they were served with the same delicious dipping sauce as my Tori Kara Age.
We decided that it was time we all tried Sake, and ordered a flask of Ozeki Ginkan to share. Served warm, I suddenly realised why it’s served in those little cups – the warmth made the fumes rise from the liquid and nearly made me cough and splutter as I poured. For some reason I didn’t expect it to be so incredibly intoxicating, one little cup each had us all really feeling the effects. It tasted much like I expected – a cross between wine made from grapes, and rice vinegar. Not unpleasant, but not something I’d drink regularly. After the first virgin cup I tried mixing mine with a little drop of Ame – a floral grape-based drink – and it was delicious, though my companions claim this was ‘cheating’. The friendly group of Americans next to us cottoned on to the fact that it was our first time with sake and chatted to us about how we found it, and told us about sake tastings they’d been to or heard about – this is one of the real pleasant aspects of the communal dining atmosphere, you can pick up new friends and learn new things almost by accident as you slurp your meal!
Our main dishes arrived in conjunction with our small portions, and were all HUGE – only one of us managed to finish the whole plate. Mine was Chilli Beef Ramen – a glorious bowl of sirloin steak with noodles in a vinegar and chilli-based broth. It was garnished with fresh chilli, sliced red onion, beanshoots, spring onions and fresh leaf coriander. Now I love coriander as much as the next person, but there was damn near a coriander salad floating in my bowl. After I’d fished this out, I was left with a giant portion of deliciousness, and faced with the difficulty of eating huge chunks of meat, long tangled noodles and scalding broth, with just chopsticks and a large soup spoon. Let’s just say I splattered a fair amount on my face and top at the beginning…and my companion who had a similar bowlful made a suitably amusing mess around her bowl.
Chicken Ramen is probably the simplest dish on the menu, but this suited R, as she is not always the most adventurous diner (her next favourite dish was Cha Han, which is basically what those aficionados of the Chinese takeaway menu would recognise as special fried rice!). It was a noodle-and-meat broth in a similar vein to my own Ramen dish, but of a more subtle hue, bereft of chilli and strong herbage, ideal for the timid first-timer.
The final dish was Yaki Soba, a huge plate of thick, soft and fluffy noodles with stir-fried chicken and vegetables with ample amounts of chilli, garlic and lemongrass seasoned sauce mixed in. Easier to eat than the broths, though I imagine it would still be a trial for those not adept with chopsticks, this was wolfed down by my companion and I’d definitely order it again. I’d never though a thick noodle was a good thing until I’d tried these, they went perfectly with the gutsy sauce and the chunky meat and veg.
So what did I think of Wagamama? Would I go there again? Yes indeed, it was fabulous. By far and away the best oriental cooking I’ve had in a long time, and I thoroughly enjoyed the communal atmosphere. But then I was blessed with nice people to sit next to, and I like chatting to people in restaurants. Our camera drew a lot of attention, but it acted as an ice-breaker between ourselves and the American group next to us. If you like informality, and wont shy away from random people peering over your shoulder and trying to work out what you’re eating…go to Wagamama – go now. I can’t wait to find out if the Birmingham one is as good!
*I love to save the remains of the dipping sauce too, and mix into it a few ladlefuls of soup stock from one of my favourite main courses – Miso Ramen or Chilli Beef Ramen – and drink it in one great draught. It’s a fiery, salty tangy treat which hits all my buttons in terms of umami.