With 130 branches in the UK alone, Wagamama is far from an independent neighbourhood ramen joint; and the recent sale of the business to the owner of Frankie and Benny’s confirms this. However, the chain doesn’t play to the same kitsch nostalgia as its new stablemate. Instead, it forges on with a successful business model that was the height of cool in the 90s.
Taking our 2 year old to taste the new vegan children’s options (out of interest, rather than any dietary shift), we settled at one of the communal benches which have become something of a Wagamama trademark. Ordering from both the kid’s and main menus (and sampling some meat dishes for good measure), we mixed and matched our way to a full table. The Boy was in no mood to eat, but settled to a colouring in sheet supplied by a friendly waiter. At one point he chewed on some fried breadcrumbed sweet potato, which is fairly high praise these days.
The Bang Bang Cauliflower was a standout dish – charred and spicy – and Teriyaki Beef Don Buri provided a satisfying bowl of meat and sticky rice. Other plates were less memorable. The miso cod ramen sounded very promising, but was under-seasoned, and underpowered. Duck gyoza were dry and stringy, whilst pork belly steamed buns were gummy and cloying. In general, the meal was hit and miss – though we’ve definitely had better in other branches in the past. Everything was fresh and quick, the service was good, and the restaurants are very child-friendly. On this occasion, all that was rather undone by a seeming lack of attention in the kitchen.
Wagamama sits comfortably at the centre of a Venn diagram comprising freshness, value for money, and predictability. With Wagamama, you know what you’re going to get. It’s the Premier Inn of the restaurant world: a dependable and comforting choice in any city, but ultimately a bit underwhelming.
The chain has its place, that’s for sure. If you’ve never eaten Japanese or East Asian food before, batter in – your likely to be pleasantly surprised. If you’re a teenager on a date, looking to make the leap from Burger King (via Nandos), then you’re in the right place. However, if you are a foodie with any experience of good Japanese cooking, I’d leave Wagamama for emergencies only.
By Ru McKelvie-Sutherland
P.s. thanks to Bite Magazine for the invite.