Wagamama have very recently launched their new ‘innovative’ kitchen in Soho where the public can try out never-been-seen before dishes and give direct feedback. Not really the done thing for brands of this size, and promising of much excitement – is it yay or nay? Samina investigates…
Pan Asian, mostly Japanese.
In A Word:
An eclectic group of people. Thanks to the fact it’s Soho there’s a blend of tourists and business people – locals too, perhaps?. There’s lots of couples, small and big groups of friends and families. Not too different to any other ‘regular’ Wagamama you may have visited.
Seems like these days that very little sets chain restaurants apart, but perhaps Wagamama has got the answer. Last month they unveiled ‘noodle lab’ – a new creative test kitchen in the heart of Soho, where they’re giving the public the chance to try and rate their new Asian-inspired dishes. The most successful ones will then go on the national menu. This test menu changes every month and Jack and I have been invited to see what’s it all about.
Rather like the TARDIS, the Noodle Lab looks small on the outside, but when you step inside, it is absolutely huge. It has a classic contemporary interior and minimal design. There’s an open plan kitchen and we can see, hear and smell the food sizzle and simmer as Jack and I are being led to our table – again, not dissimilar to any other Wagamama you may have visited.
It’s quite a maze in here, so many twists and turns and there’s even a separate bar in the basement. It’s quite cosy – wooden tables, comfy benches and downward spotlights. There’s an upbeat vibe to the restaurant emphasised by what is mainly a nineties/early 00’s soundtrack – nostalgia and noodles. Perfect for this part of the city.
The Testing Menu
The menu is said to reflect Wagamama’s core belief and the Japanese philosophy ‘kaizen’ – which means ‘good change’, or continual positive improvement. But is it good?… The temporary menu is highlighted in red on the main menu and all you have to do is choose what you fancy. Being such dedicated foodies and for the benefit of you lovely readers, Jack and I order the lot. Well, all the food that is!
Our first side arrives, and rather promptly. It’s the Ika Katsu – balls of squid with Japanese mayo and bonito flakes. It’s surprisingly light and delicate. It’s soft on the inside and crunchy on the outside. It does me remind me of fish cake slightly, but it’s a good start nonetheless.
Vietnamese Glass Noodle Salad
This is the first main to be served. It looks super healthy but is packed full of refreshing flavours thanks to the lemongrass and mixed salad leaves. The ginger chicken is slightly sweet and scrumptious and is perfectly cooked. It’s a nightmare trying to eat it with chopsticks so I give up and use the fork! It’s light and satisfying and being under 500 calories, you don’t feel guilty at all.
Tantamen Pork Ramen
A huge bowl arrives full of exotic aromas. It’s the Tantamen Pork Ramen. It’s beautifully presented. Full of weighty flavours, it makes a hearty meal which is perfect for the autumn/winter season. It has an amazing stock made up of pork and chicken which warms and delights the palate. The pork is tender and the spring onions give it a lovely crunch.
It’s the first time I’ve tried ramen, but i’m really impressed. Jack hails it as the best ramen he’s ever had – and he’s travelled around Japan and visited Japanese restaurants far more expensive than this. Let’s hope this becomes a permanent item on the menu.
Another beautifully presented dish and another first for me. I’ve never had a katsu curry, even though it seems to be all the rage right now, so I’m pretty excited about this one. This is entirely vegan, seitan (a soya based product) replaces the chicken the dish and I am absolutely amazed. It actually tastes like you’re eating meat and has a lot more flavour than tofu.
Together with the katsu sauce, it has an incredibly moreish flavour. It’s the best vegan dish I’ve had. Hopefully this ends up on the main menu too!
Our other two sides have disappeared…luckily we find our waiter who goes to find them. Dishes aren’t served in the order of the menu, so it does get a bit confusing here.
Finally the two remaining dishes arrive. The first is the Vegetable Tempura. It looks rather tasty, but sadly it’s a tad underwhelming. The sweet potato and red pepper slices are light, soft and easy to eat, the hint of sweet and sour sauce makes the tempura more flavoursome. However, the asparagus is far too bland and tough to chew. The tenderstem broccoli is the same.
Jack and I are also confused by the weird, slightly translucent strings…I’ve never seen the like. Overall, this dish is our least favourite.
Vegan Steamed Buns
This is also the first time I’m trying steamed buns and I have to wonder why I haven’t tried them before. They have a neat, sandwich-type appearance and a soft, squishy feel. The smell of mushroom and panko aubergine is quite strong too. The veg gives a powerful flavour which balances with the light spongy buns and is satisfying to the stomach.
Nix and Kix Cucumber and Mint
I’m washing it all done with a delightful vegan drink combining the beautiful flavours of cucumber and mint. It’s alcohol-free and has a slight, fiery kick that comes from the cayenne pepper.
This has also come from the test menu and it goes well with all the dishes, particularly the glass noodle salad and the Ika Katsu.
Katsu Curry Ice Cream
I’m feeling full, but as there’s only one dish left, I can squeeze it in! It’s the only dessert on test menu and it’s called Katsu Curry Ice Cream. Yes, you read that right. Jack and I are thinking, what the hell is this? I’m willing to try it though. The juxtaposition of hot and cold elements sounds interesting.
Appearance-wise, it doesn’t look like much. Just a blob. Although the scent of curry is quite strong. Now for the tasting. I have to say, it’s strange but totally delicious. The ice cream is full of coconut and the slightly spicy katsu sauce works amazingly well. It has a kind of salted caramel/peanut butter flavour when mixed with the ice cream which is oddly satisfying.
Of course, Wagamama do want to know what you think of their dishes, so how do the ordinary diners give their feedback? Again, it’s pretty simple. The waiter brings round little tablets which are easy to use. Just tap on the dishes you tried and tap yes or no if you want to recommend them. You can also rate each dish on how they look, taste etc and leave a comment if you have time. Easy! [Ed: also free markey research fof Wagamama..ahem]
It’s been a fun evening! It’s a great idea allowing the public to try and evaluate new and exciting dishes. There are some extraordinary flavours here and let’s hope some of them end up on the main menu. You may have to nudge the waiter into remembering what you ordered as it tends to get busy and confusing here, but otherwise it’s a great experience to try at least once.
Rather impressive for a chain restauant at this price point and in this location. We hope some of these dishes make the leap over to the regular menu.
81 Dean Street, Soho, London W1P 3HP
Tel: 0203 198 2984