PUBLISHED: 10:00 28 January 2013
The hustle and bustle of Wagamama has proved a hit with Norwich diners but, says SIMON PARKIN, the best thing is it unlike anything else — especially for adventurous kids.
Wagamama is one of those places that Norwich seems to have taken to its heart. The place, as far as I can tell, is nearly always heaving.
Though it’s part of an international chain and has a slightly hectic impersonal style of service, it genuinely offers something different on the city centre restaurant scene — though it has faced competition recently from trendy upstart Yo Sushi!
It is a quick, convenient and relatively cheap place to eat that’s not pizza, pasta or burgers. And what is particularly great to see is just how popular it appears to be with families.
Children, who as any parent will tell you can be fussy eaters, seem delighted to tuck into dishes their parents struggle to preannounce.
As the excellent children’s menu proclaims “Kids love noodles”, and certainly mastering something that isn’t burger and fries with the special junior chopsticks provided is an adventure as much as a meal.
For anyone who has been trapped in a dark room and hasn’t yet visited, the restaurant is laid out canteen style with long tables and benches which are often shared with other diners. The kitchen is in full view as the chefs bustle about. The menu says it’s modelled on simple ramen bars popular in Japan.
It’s perhaps not to everyone’s taste or suited to every occasion. If you’re after a quiet, cosy intimate setting for a meal, this definitely isn’t the place for you. Personally I love the hustle and bustling atmosphere, the banging and clattering coming from the kitchen and the fact it feels different to any other eatery in the city.
The menu is clearly split into side dishes (not starters) and various types of noodles such as noodles in soup, in a spicy sauce, on a flat hot griddle, plus salads and rice dishes.
Unless you are a regular many of the names maybe unfamiliar – cha han, yasai itame or yaki soba anyone? – but all the ingredients and the style they are served in are all helpfully explained. There is even a little glossary on the menu that explains all the different Japanese terms.
One thing that’s not present is sushi. And the range of dishes on offer may surprise some who’d previously thought of Japanese cuisine as consisting of nothing but raw fish.
The kids menu is based along the same lines to the adults, with 12 choices all around £4, including grilled chicken noodles, mini ramen of noodles and chicken in soup, and mini cha ha (stir fried rice with egg and chicken), and not a dinosaur shaped chicken or pizza and chips in sight.
At first the choice can be a bit bewildering.
The first decision is what style to go for — a big bowl of ramen (noodles in soup), noodles on a hot griddle or rice based dishes.
Eventually we went for chilli beef ramen (£12.70) which has grilled sirloin steak topping the tradition ramen mix of spicy pork and chicken soup with chillis, sliced red onions and beansprouts, and chu chee curry (£9.95), stir-fried chicken and butternut squash in a chu chee curry sauce with peppers, mangetout and courgettes, served with sticky rice.
Though the staff, who take out orders using electronic gizmos, seem permanently distracted and doing several tasks for several tables at once, they’re friendly and helpful.
One of the best things about eating here is that everything is cooked from fresh right there to order, no microwaves pinging away in the separate kitchen, and there’s great fun to be had trying to guess which chef is preparing your food. Consequently when it comes its piping hot and the portions are generous.
Cutlery is offered along with chopsticks, though you’d need to be a real stick in the mud not to get into the spirit of things – even the kids on the next table to us were trying, with varying degrees of success.
The ramen comes in a huge bowl and with a wooden ladle-style spoon. The steak is cut into strips and perfectly cooked and melt in the mouth tender. The soup is gives a spicy kick without being ridiculously hot.
The chicken cooked with the curry sauce (perhaps a surpise to diners who don’t associate Japan with curry) being light, fragrant and not being too dissimilar to Thai.
The puddings are written on the paper place mats on the table and we’ve been keeping an eye on the choice throughout the meal. In the end we went for a simple coconut reika (£3.55), three scoops of ice cream with tangy mango sauce and toasted coconut flakes. It was rich, creamy and perfect for taking the heat out of the mains.
Kanzen, as they say in Japan.
Prices: Mains £7.30-£13.90, side orders from £3.95, desserts from £3.35
Open: Mon-Thurs 11.30am-10pm; Fri 11.30am-10.30pm; Sat 11am-10.30pm; Sun 12pm-10pm
Disabled access: Yes