wagamama serves up a great budget option bite to eat in the heart of one of London’s trendiest markets.
Old Spitalfields itself is easy enough to find, just off from the business bustle of Bishopsgate, but wagamama itself requires more of a search. Based upstairs on a raised level, the restaurant is tucked away in a corner of the covered market area. With wooden decking outside, you can sit on the canteen style benches out there without worrying about the British weather ruining your noodles.
Inside the restaurant itself, there is a large galley kitchen running down one side so you can watch the chefs wok up their katsu curries as you sit and chat. The far wall is made of glass so you can peer down on the busy market place below (although this is shut at night and therefore you end up looking down on a deserted courtyard). There are some great six-seater booths for larger parties along one wall, and the middle of the venue has more of those now well known benches. With little variation between one venue to the next, there’s little to surprise here. It’s a newer branch though and feels clean and bright to almost utility proportions.
wagamama is normally a bustling noodle bar, with a high turnover of customers who have come for a healthy, budget noodle fix with no frills. Essentially, Spitalfields is no different except at night it gets very quiet as all the business types from the area commute out of the city. This gives Spitalfields a more relaxed vibe – you don’t feel rushed to slurp down your udon and get out, and you’re not jostling for elbow room as you struggle to master chopsticks. In fact, this wagamama is pretty intimate in comparison. The people who are here are young professionals meeting up to chat, and most seem to be seasoned wagamama fiends – they’re familiar with the informal ordering process and the uniform menu.
And informal is probably a good word to use overall for the service. It’s not that they are unprofessional or over-familiar, but the emphasis at these noodle bars goes against normal restaurant etiquette: the food will arrive separately, and sides will appear a while after, before, or at the same time as the main course. The waiting staff will interact with you in a friendly way and will write your order on your paper placemat. Make no mistake, this is not the place for fine dining – but that’s not the ethos of the restaurant and if you want tablecloths and crystal goblets, you’re perhaps best going elsewhere.
The majority of the menu is heavily influenced by Japanese cuisine. Perhaps it’s not an authentic Japanese experience and the flavours have been Westernised, but the food is still delicious, delicate and dirt cheap (well, for London). There are no starters on the menu per se, but you can order sides that might arrive before your main course. Highly recommended are the rich duck gyoza. These are deep-fried duck dumplings and are tender and succulent. They come with hoi sin dipping sauce, which complements the deep flavours of the duck perfectly. You will get five of these sumptuous parcels for about £5 and will probably be left craving more. An option for seafood lovers is the ebi katsu – deep fried tiger prawns which have been butterflied and come in a crumb coating. These are a more delicate flavour, which is perhaps lost in the crispy coating. The ebi katsu comes with a red chilli and garlic sauce – this adds some zing to the otherwise lacklustre side.
Perhaps one of wagamama’s best loved dishes is the chicken chilli men (there is also a vegetarian option involving courgettes) – it’s a minced chicken dish with a hearty tomato and chilli sauce that packs a spicier punch than most things on the menu. It’s warming, filling and comes complete with noodles. This is the restaurant’s version of comfort food but is one of the more expensive dishes at almost £9. If spice isn’t your thing, then perhaps ebi raisukaree, a tiger prawn curry, is worth a try. Sticky rice is served in a pool of delicate, fragrant curry sauce, with prawns and chillis and coriander leaves scattered. The curry sauce is a delicious combination of zingy lime and creamy, sweet coconut sauce. However, once again the prawns themselves are insipid and perhaps less fresh than you might hope. For £9.75, you would hope for a little more from the key ingredient.
If you have room for dessert, then you’d be hard pushed to find something to cleanse your palate better than the sorbet: mango with lime zest and lychee. These sobets have gentle flavours, which are perfect for cooling your tongue if you’ve just had a big bowl of chilli men. Still hungry? Try the chocolate fudge cake – the cake is moist and rich, and has a delicious chocolate fudge and wasabi icing filling. Don’t be alarmed by the wasabi – it’s a combination that works – it’s subtle and adds a warmth to the chocolate flavour. Fabulous for those with a sweet tooth!
wagamama isn’t really somewhere you go for the drink unless you’re a big green tea fan – they sell that by the bucket load. However, despite not being the focus of the restaurant, thought has still been put into the drinks menu. There are healthy freshly squeezed juices with ingredients as far ranging as carrot, cucumber and ginger to orange, apple and lime. These are all fairly priced at around £3.
If you’re after something a little harder, then there’s Japanese beer on offer in the form of Asahi – a large bottle will set you back £4.50 though. There is also the traditional Japanese wine, sake, on offer, and wagamama’s version is ideal for beginners to Japanese beverages. The wine list is extensive with a choice of four reds, four whites and one rose. For a bottle it’ll cost you anything from the £12 mark up to £17, which is a fair range and reflective of the clientele.
The Last Word
wagamama is a great option for a cheap bite to eat in London. The food is hearty, warming and generally of good standard. If you find your stomach rumbling whilst you’re browsing the markets, a quick lunch here is a safe bet.