3.5-Star Restaurant (our ratings)
An open atmosphere and unusual cuisine served professionally, chain-style, but with average taste.
Wagamama. It’s fun just to say it, so not wanting to spoil the illusion, I don’t ask what it means. This is the first time I’ve interviewed someone at a restaurant who’s not a manager, chef, or owner. Nancy Barret is in charge of marketing, and Wagamama is a chain, founded in London in 1992 and now has branches in Faneuil Hall, the Prudential Center, and Harvard Square. I don’t make a joke about Britain trying to re-colonize, because Nancy is a local. She grew up in Peabody and now lives in Charlestown. I spend several minutes trying to find a personal story behind the restaurant and fail. So. It’s a chain.
We met in the Harvard location just before opening time. It’s a huge clean space that seats 120, that’s creative and not too corporate, with an open plan and an open kitchen. With its full height windows, it’s bright and cheerful. In the corners, 4 unnecesary televisions are set to the news, not sports. Music plays quietly — so quietly that it’s easily covered by conversation.
Wagamama is a pan-asian restaurant with a Japanese leaning, Nancy tells me. They call it “communal seating” because the tables are connected into low rows. But there’s space between the seats about the same that you’d find at any closely packed restaurant of 2-seat tables. Since this is London’s version of Asia’s cuisine, they focus on making the food accessible rather than purely authentic. That sounds great to me. (What is authentic, anyway? It’s like a denial that cultures learn from each other and an insistence that ethnicities are homogenous, combined with a prejudice against progress.) The menu is helpfully labeled with symbols for those who eat vegetarian or have allergies and can’t want gluten-free foods.
“We try to keep the menu the same as all the other branches, so that customers get exactly the same experience,” Nancy says, and I politely question whether consistency is good in a restaurant whose focus is accessible food (i.e. caters to local tastes), beyond the internal benefits of honing profits. I have an MBA and have no problem with chains — I like Pizzeria UNO and the Longhorn Steakhouse, for example — but streamlining and centralizing your business can pull you away from nimbly responding to customer feedback.
“London is a very fast-paced place,” Nancy tells me, “and our focus is to serve very fresh food, very quickly, with 30 sauces made in-house.” Each server has a handheld device that transmits orders to the kitchen, but it doesn’t seem to have an impact. My appetizers came out in 7 minutes and the entrees in 10 minutes and 13 minutes respectively. I wonder if like McDonald’s they prep the most popular dishes in advance during busy times, and by coming at 11:30am I am not seeing their best hustle. Customers are given chopsticks but also a fork and a knife without needing to ask.
I tried the Raw Juice first: “carrot, cucumber, tomato, orange, and apple juice”. It’s $3.95 for a regular size, which thankfully is not a euphemism for “small”. It’s odd. It tastes like orange juice but has an aftertaste like vegetable juice. There are definitely layers and it keeps your interest, finding cucumber hiding and then emerging. You should drink it quickly, because after a few minutes sitting, it will separate into top and bottom layers.
I quite enjoyed the Duck Dumplings ($7), “served with a cherry hoi sin sauce”, which are baked and then deep fried, leaving them almost entirely free of oil but not slippery like the steaming pork dumplings I’m used to at Chinese places. The duck meat is really unusual and has a paste texture. The sauce is sweet and has a kick to it.
The Yasai Katsu Curry ($10) is a vegeterian dish that’s approachable and simple, with “deep-fried slices of panko-coated sweet potato, eggplant, and butternut squash, with curry sauce and sticky rice”. I enjoyed the large chunks of sweet potato and eggplant, which were fun to cut up and bite into, and it comes with a salad that’s sharp and interesting, if slightly bitter. Unfortunately, I found the sticky rice tasteless — empty calories — and the curry rather than being a sauce was too “Thanksgiving gravy” for me: too buttery and laid on top rather than mixed in.
The Chili Ramen ($11) was the first item I tried that I really enjoyed, a “spicy broth and ramen noodles topped with chicken, chilies, red onion, bean sprouts, cilantro, scallion”, was still hot several minutes after being served. It has a hot smell like kimchi but my server Matt says that’s the chili sauce and fish paste. The presentation is wonderful and it’s definitely a full meal, with pure chicken that’s you can savor. It’s got so many complex ingredients that different spoonfuls will have different levels of spiciness.
The Lemongrass Shrimp Soba was too plain for me, ($14, a little pricey for lunch) is “grilled shrimp on noodles stir-fried with cilantro, garlic, chilies, and beansprouts”. The meal has no real smell to it, and I found it ordinary. It had the same noodles as the salmon dish, but without a dominating taste, it just made the grease more promiment.
My favorite of the meals I tried was the Teriyaki Salmon Soba ($13.50), “teriyaki soba with salmon, on noodles with curry oil, snow peas, chiles, red onion, scallion, ginger, bean sprouts, and bok choy”. It’s got a powerful and unusual smell that made me say ‘wow’, which, although the noodles are the same, buries any greasiness. Unfortunately, I didn’t care for the bok choy — I just don’t get the juxtaposition of smooth noodles and flaky salmon that melts in your mouth with a bitter crunchy alien celery.
Overall, Wagamama serves solid, upscale food, with great presentation and reasonable prices. I prefer the atmosphere to the food, but the place is not so friendly that you expect to make friends here or meet the owner. And I can’t help but notice that (at the Harvard location) you can find better food and an even more impressive atmosphere upstairs, at Shabu-Ya. I am pleased to give Wagamama an average but no complaints 3.5-star restaurant rating.
7 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA