Wagamama means naughty child; wilful and determined. Yet the chain's premise is to combine fresh and nutritious food in an elegant, simple setting with helpful, friendly service that offers value for money. That doesn’t sound very naughty does it?
Based on the Japanese noodle bar theme, Wagamama was born in 1992. Since then the restaurants have become synonymous with an exciting casual dining experience within a contemporary stylish setting. Wagamama in Hampstead definitely epitomises this mantra. Newly opened in the bustling, well to do suburb of north London, there is still that comforting smell of fresh decoration as you are seated. Wooden tables and floors abound throughout. An area to the front has more intimate tables for two or four people, with the traditional canteen seating being found towards the back of the restaurant. Simple spot lighting and muted green splashes of paint are enlivened by stripy cushions found on the bench seats. The mute, minimalist décor creates a sense of space.
Staff are truly friendly and helpful, and able to offer help or suggestions when asked. For those not familiar with Wagamama, it's not a place to come and procrastinate over the menu. Orders are taken on high-tech electronic order pads and the relevant numbers scribbled onto your paper place mat for easy viewing. This venue provides an efficient, purposeful setting and as the menu highlights; a real sense of positive eating plus positive living. Clientele is mixed, from families and couples of all ages to teenage groups and after work suits all enjoying a fun communal dining experience.
The menu itself contains a glossary and written instruction that side dishes are not starters. Nevertheless, the fresh ingredients and variety of styles of rice and noodle dishes are sectioned into easy viewing with an explanation of each throughout the menu. Whether ramen (noodle soup dishes served in big bowls) or teppan (noodles cooked on a griddle) or curry rice dishes, there really is something on offer for the vast majority of palates.
Well known for their side dishes ranging from under two pounds up to six; the duck gyoza with cherry hoi sin sauce and pork spare ribs glazed in a special barbecue sauce are worth a try. The spare ribs are soft yet sticky, with a barbecue sauce that doesn't detract from the sweetness of the meat. Sesame seeds provide a surprising and delightful contrast in texture as the meat falls off the bone. The gyoza are sadly slightly overcooked. The dumpling pastry is a touch too dry and coated in too much salt, but the duck meat has luckily retained a little of its moisture. This coupled with the cherry hoi sin gives that additional burst of flavour that brings the whole dish to life.
The beef teriyaki soba is perfect. What's not revealed on the menu is that the beef is actually a steak delicately sliced and laid over the top of the sticky noodles, crunchy bok choi and mangetout. The beef is presented medium rare – charred on the outside and beautifully pink on the inside. The delicate sweetness of the spring onions works well with the piquant of the chillies and earthy coriander. The dish exudes contrasting flavours and textures with every mischievous mouthful.
The chicken raisukaree is well rounded with a smooth depth of flavour coming from the lime and ginger in the coconut sauce. The steamed rice eagerly soaks up the sauce and the delicate balance of the light chicken pieces with vibrant red peppers and onion is beautifully finished with nutty garlic, coriander and sesame. Main dishes range from seven pounds up to thirteen.
Happily the desserts take the longest to arrive. The white chocolate and ginger cheesecake is pure heaven and not to be missed. Sweet, creamy chocolate and rough stem ginger work in perfect harmony with the soft cheesecake and crunchy biscuit base. The chilli toffee sauce is very moreish, and the hint of spice adds a different dimension to this usually saccharine sauce.
The frozen yoghurts are intriguing and feel like a healthy end to the meal. The chocolate, chilli and ginger flavour has a deep taste with an added kick but the passion fruit scoop is tangy and exotic in contrast. The lemongrass is not quite as refreshing as one might hope and would have been excellent as a sorbet. Nevertheless, it's zesty and cool.
Varieties of freshly squeezed juices are on offer and make a delightful zingy alternative to the usual soft drinks. That said you can also find ginger beer, elderflower juice and sparkling lemongrass and ginger drinks from which to choose. Sakes and Asian beers also adorn the menu as do a variety of wines and hot drinks including green and jasmine teas.
The Last Word
Over the last twenty years, Wagamama has managed to retain its impish style yet offers the diner an excellent Asian food experience that remains value for money. The naughty elements of the menu are still there in abundance and highlight the will and determination of the brand to remain true to its mantra. The venue in Hampstead runs extremely efficiently and is a good shout if you're in the area.