Wagamama  – My 25 years of Udon

What a name, only the other day I was watching food network and there was a Danny Jean, it leant itself to a deep south Texan accent – there I was trying all American names with an American drawl accent, Billy Jean, Bobby Jay, Jimmy Buck, – you’re doing it now aren’t you? Then I tried Wagamama – and it worked.

Not that that’s got anything to do with my very first discovery into the brand, the massive brand that is ‘Waga-mama’ – I did it again!

But in Japanese the word means self-indulgent, self-centred, disobedient or wilful – either way the name is one of the best on the high-street.

WH smith, Primark, Costa don’t really have the same vibe.

Millions of years ago when I was a chef in London and Nick was my practising husband, we subscribed to the Time Out magazine, pre-kids, pre-internet, pre-business and post-life because we used to get out, not just regularly but whenever we wanted! – we’d just walk out the door – can’t imagine that now but we did.

We loved food, that bit hasn’t changed but we also loved trying new restaurants – when me and Nick met in London we started trying a new restaurant or café every week – so when we read that a new Asian inspired restaurant called Wagamama had opened its doors to rave reviews we grabbed a coat, jumped on a tube and joined the queue.

Word soon got around – it had a massive foody buzz and within weeks a faithful following. This was 1992

 queuing into restaurants wasn’t heard of, clubs yes! but not restaurants, London had tons of them.

The first ever Wagamama, still serving, opened in Bloomsbury, tucked away on 4 Streatham Street, WC1 off Bloomsbury Street, what seemed a very long walk from the nearest tube Tottenham Court Road. It didn’t even look like a restaurant, more of a door with a massive queue spilling out onto the street. We joined in joyous anticipation for something, so new, it was sure to blow our socks off – as the queue went down and we went down the staircase you went past the iconic image that became Wagamama’s poster in the early days, a young Japanese lad – slurping noodles from a bowl of Ramen. As we went further down the stairs we then peered in to the vast basement restaurant with long wooden benches, dark and atmospheric with an open plan kitchen – bustling chef’s wok-ing-wonders on the teppan grill.

It was so exciting – sharing tables was unheard off, it harped back to school canteen days in a cool retro way – waiters took your order on computer pads, we didn’t even know they existed, the technology was amazing, it was like looking into ‘Tomorrows World’ this was the 90’s after all.

I was lost in the menu – it was all new to me.

The 90’s in London was all about Mediterranean cooking. English was out, Italian was in . I was knocking up Tiramisu & Cous Cous as the Head chef of Designers Guild. So an Asian, serving up something so diverse in flavours, textures and look was incredible.

 I mean there was other Asian restaurants out there, you had China town serving up the same gloup in every restaurant, you had one Japanese teppanyaki  restaurant offering exorbitantly expensive bite sized morsels, a few Thai who’s menu confused me and was soooo spicy, I thought my head would pop off. The Trocadero opened up a food hall in the basement which did have a Ramen cafe, which I used to look at longingly but never sampled, till it was too late and replaced by a generic brand. Then a Malaysian at the Elephant & Castle which was outstanding, even though I had no idea what I was eating with names as foreign then as Massiman or Gado Gado so good they named it twice.

So Wagamama’s hit the scene, we slurped it up – literally.

Designed total originality, open plan, you could see all that was happening, benches with shared seating, it was in those days completely and utterly innovative. If you hadn’t gone, someone was sure to tell you to go. Plus, to boot they had the best trained waiting staff, they would say ‘Have you eaten here before’ in the days when no one had. When I hear it now, I want to say yes, only tons of time over 20 years and yes, I know you can hang your bag under the table and yes, I know the dishes will come at different times – I even know why now, keep reading -I’ll tell ya!

So, roll on a decade, I’ve given up cheffing, married with 2 children and my now hubby Nick is project manager on Chapelfield shopping centre – there he was fitting out Wagamama’s Norwich – to my overjoyed excitement at finally getting it here in my home town. He tried to encourage restaurants on either side of Chapelfield plain but back then they opted for shops on the right-hand side – now apart from one cloths shop they are all restaurants, which lends perfectly to that beautiful open area.

He tried to encourage Wagamama’s to use there upstairs for seating, but because they had never had or have a two story building they decided to opt for a smooth operation and use it as a prep kitchen – would have been lovely to sit on the balcony eating Udon whilst watching the world go by – apparently the windows up there are top spec opening ones & of course never used but there is always time – come on Wag’s how about a private VIP eating area up there.

So – of course, we were there in the first month of opening just like we were in the first ever Wag’s. Our children grew up with the kid’s meals, Chicken Katsu and sticky rice.

I wouldn’t say our enthusiasm dwindled, because I’ll always have a special place in my foodie heart for Wag’s but we drifted apart, with new restaurants and cafes to try and only juiced it up once a year or so.

But . . . to my utter delight we were invited to a taster evening with the refurb and new menu under their belts.

I can’t enthuse enough what an excellent night we had, fantastically professional service, we were so looked after with visits from Mutha the development chef, Ega & Anna our hostesses.

We sampled the edamame, the raw salad (an all-time favourite, with zesty dressing and crispy onions), the lollypop prawn (succulent and juicy), the belly pork steamed buns (my favourite, light fluffy buns with sticky pork and crispy apple), chilli squid (just yum, shhoosh we had 2 of those), vegan gyoza (I do prefer the duck ones, but good to try these meaty mushroom version).

You know when you pick the wrong main course – I chose Steak Bulgogi – nothing wrong with it, but not very exciting, tender steak, umptious kimchi, I LOVE KIMCHI, great tasting aubergine and noodles but a tad on the dry side, could do with an extra splodge of the good stuff.

Next time I’m going for the Duck Donburi a lot like Korean Bimbot – a bowl with a generous amount of Wagamamas lovely sticky Japanese rice, topped with crispy duck, veggies, sauce and a fried egg with a side order of Kimchi to mix it all together with. Hubby had Raisukaree prawn curry – beautifully spiced, with rich coconut flavours and a large scoop of rice floating in the middle of divine sauce.

Main courses run between £10-15, sides or starters £4 -£7 with pickles and kimchi only £1 and desserts around £6 each. Plus, an amazing array of kids dishes for about£4 – £5, I once suggested to head office they offer kids drinks – they now do a kid’s juice half the price.

Wag’s do do a mean curry, past trips usually consist of either a Udon noddle dish or a coconut infused Ramen plus Wagamama really know how to get flavour in to sauce – I love all the dipping, dressing and sauces tossed in to the noodles – always sweet, tangy and flavourful.

They are driven by the Japanese word Kaizen meaning Good Change – they say it’s in every bite.

I love the fact Wagamama’s have always embraced food with a difference – it’s so easy to serve Victoria Sponge for lunch but put on a Chilli infused Chocolate Cake and you might be fearful to put people off – –

They take risks – to finish off we shared fig & coconut cheese cake, penko banana with caramel ice-cream and a chocolate Layered cake – all delicious but I was ready to take a nap!

Did I mention the juice – for years me and Nick have been drinking the raw juice £3.50 for regular, £4.50 for a large – freshly juiced by a dedicated juicer. But this time I tried the Carrot, the super green (the best one!) and a tropical.

In between eating we had a chopstick challenge – pop as many edamame beans in the pot, from the plate with chopsticks in 30 seconds as you could – – I won, after all I’ve been eating with chopsticks since a teenager, I even carry a set of Japanese sticks in my handbag because I hate the wooden ones they so often give you in Asian restaurants.

Wagamama’s runs like clockwork with a chef in each section – the teppan grill, the wok station, the blanching station for ramen and the fryers – plus they are hard at work in the prep kitchen upstairs from 8am for the early shift.

I know it’s easy to rave about a place when they’ve been wined and dined for free but as I said before Wagamama’s has a special place in my foodie heart – I admire its growth while still containing its freshness, I love the constantly evolving menu and the whole concept still is as cool now as when I first peeped in to that first dining room from that staircase in 1992 – well almost, my jaw doesn’t drop but my enthusiasm still rises – that’s probably the duck goyoza!

If I was to make one suggestion, it would be to have a lunch time deal – the prices are good value at night time but not everyone can indulge in a £15 main meal at lunch time especially with kids in tow – so a lunch special would rock my Waggy-boat more often than I could teppanyaki.

Would I recommend it – Hell YES.

By Zena Leech-Calton ©