The appearance of Wagamama just off of Madison Square can be seen as part of a trend that’s bringing international chains based in other countries to the city for the first time. An early example was Pret-A-Manger, hiding a British sandwich shop behind a French moniker. We now have 17 branches in Manhattan. More recently, Japanese empires such as Ippudo and Ootoya have become further entrenched, as newcomers like Ichiran and TsuruTonTan have generated massive lines and long waits from their inception.
But while Ippudo and Ichiran offer ramen as served back home in Japan, a phenomenon that might justifiably make us curious about how their noodles stack up against our own homegrown versions, Wagamama offers ramen that is more culturally ambiguous. Its take has been filtered through English sensibilities, creating a dumbed-down Anglo-Japanese cuisine intrinsically less interesting to New York’s sophisticated ramen-slurping public. Yet the lines formed anyway. I went with a friend at the end of the first week to find out what all the excitement was about.
The restaurant seats over 200 in four dining rooms in a storefront so large that it has entrances on both Fifth Avenue and Broadway. The build-out is impressive: first, a barroom overhung with a skeleton of black girders; then a darker, trestle-like middle room with stairways that lead to a balcony, bathrooms, and an upstairs dining room; and finally seating that runs along an open kitchen where many white-coated cooks are busily at work.
The menu first presents a page of poetic mottos (including "from bowl to soul," "Asian food inspired by the flavors of Japan," and "we cook with flavor, heat, and love"). After admonishing you to try using chopsticks, it goes on to present 39 dishes in 7 categories (Sides, Ramen, Curry, Teppanyaki, Donburi, Salads, Dessert), each with an invitation to invent your own dish by substituting starches. Naturally, we went right to the ramen section. Most of the eight bowls were based on what the menu describes as a "rich chicken broth," and we ordered the most fundamental one, called chicken ($13).
When it arrived, masses of chopped scallions and watercress lay next to a half boiled egg and slices of grilled skinless chicken breast. The description had promised miso, but the broth was flavorless dishwater. The noodles were overcooked and had no texture. We’d been given the standard lecture by our black-clad server that dishes could come unexpectedly at any time, and at the same moment we received our fried chicken ($7).
It wasn’t Japanese fried chicken, which was inspired by American fried chicken following World War II, but pleasant enough — little nuggets of thyme-dusted thigh meat seemingly without breading. Let’s call it British fried chicken. We sampled several other dishes, including a grilled duck donburi ($16) sided with kimchi and with a topping that resembled an Italian ragu ("I don’t get the ‘grilled’ part," my companion groused); and a plate of wok-fried greens that was darned good. Most curious of all was a dish chosen from the Curry category. Called firecracker prawn ($15), it proved to be a stir fry of bell peppers, onions, and crustaceans, like something from a Chinese carryout menu. Though pleasantly spicy, it bore no resemblance to curry — Japanese, Indian, or otherwise. Which made us think that eating at Wagamama requires a certain level of culinary cluelessness to be fully enjoyed. Certainly the prices are a little less than they might be, given the luxuriousness and relative comfort of the premises.