Joris Minne: Wagamama
Commercial food chains rarely offer fine dining, so is this experience bearable?
All good things come to Belfast in the end. Starbucks coffee, Urban Outfitters, international cruise ships, crackle nail polish all are mainstream features of our daily lives. Yet less than five years ago we could only dream of these.
Wagamama, the most famous noodle bar chain of them all and blessed with a hint of urban glamour, is so well established in Belfast after only a year, it now does home deliveries.
A restaurant which majors on noodles is not aiming to blind its clientele with brilliance. So long as the noodles are not overcooked, that there’s enough of a difference for a diner to make some distinction between the different noodle dishes, you can’t really go wrong.
The thing about commercial food chains is that they are neither brilliant nor hopeless. PizzaExpress and Nando’s are better than average at making pizzas and barbecuing chicken. Burger chains can occasionally hit a higher note too. I had the best ever McDonald’s during the holidays where the “Big Tasty” summer special burger was not at all bad.
Few other chains, however, achieve above-average marks. Wagamama should be good. There are hundreds of Wagamama restaurants in 18 different countries (although not in Asia). Its branding is spectacularly attractive, its dining rooms democratic, bright, benched and funky and the front of house staff, by and large, are slick and friendly.
But the food is not great. Twice have I hauled the Minnes and friends to Wagamama in Belfast’s Victoria Square and twice have we been left to wipe the disappointment from our lips with the star-branded paper napkins. Lunch at Wagamama last week failed to raise the outlook and all I found was the same consistency as the first two visits — pleasant service and comfortable room (despite the bolted down, communal benches), but so-so food.
If, however, you’re under ten years old, you will love Wagamama. On Wednesday lunchtime there were 11 children with their families at various tables. They ate like gluttenous angels and clearly loved the stuff. Also, every dish on the menu is identified by a number. Children love this too. It means they can order a 702 (bottle of ice-cold Kirin beer — Japan’s prime brew) before their parents have caught on.
As soon as I bit into the deep fried duck dumplings (number 65) I knew why. There was crispiness, soft warmth and a plum sauce so sweet as to strip the chrome off a flicker’s handlebars.
The sweetness is overwhelming in other dishes too. While the plum sauce had the kind of depth you’d get out of banana flavoured chewing gum, the teriyaki soba noodles, meant to be spicy with chilli, garlic, ginger and onion, also caused some surprise each time I bit into coriander stalks which tasted intensely floral and perfumed.
That aside, the flavours were not so bland as to be dismissed but they were disappointingly muted considering the five chefs on the other side of the 40ft kitchen counter seemed to be continually chopping up, flash frying and steaming fresh stuff for that just-made-there-now enjoyment.
This is where corporate constraints dictate the product. A Wagamama meal should be exactly the same in Belfast as in Turkey.
In the meantime, Wagamama Belfast could lift itself out of the average Joe zone without running into trouble with the corporate brand police.
They could ditch the terrible soundtracks which are self conscious and based on a clunky mix of Ibiza chill-out sounds and rhythmic world music designed to upset and inspire nobody. It ended up sounding like a medley of signature tunes from bad Mexican daytime telly. The second thing to do is change the ventilation system. I wore a new suit last Wednesday and worried about the hot hoy sin molecules rising from the woks and impregnating the fabric.
But thousands of Wagamama lovers can’t be wrong. The laid-back atmosphere, clean and bright décor and admirably socialist principles expressed through the red branded T-shirts worn by the staff (and available for sale at £15.95 with ‘Belfast’ incorporated) make it as heavenly for children as the other bright and inoffensive food chains.
Ultimately, this is to be encouraged in the same way as PizzaExpress and Nando’s because, after all, it succeeds in providing the first step to the pleasures of eating out.
Duck gyoza (dumplings).............£5.95
Teriyaki soba noodles...............£11.25
Victoria Square, Belfast BT1 4QG
Tel: 028 9023 6098