Waga-what? Japan-a-mania hits Faneuil Hall
The city of Boston is feeling an infusion of Japanese culture this Spring, starting with the acquisition of Dice-K by the Red Sox, and continuing with the first Stateside location of Wagamama-a UK-based chain of Japanese noodle bars-opened recently in Faneuil Hall.
The word "wagamama" means "willful/naughty child," and I suppose that’s the impetus behind the photo on the cover of the menu, in which a child sticks his face into a bowl of noodles. It’s an appealing, nostalgic image-who doesn’t remember being young, eating something so delicious you simply had to stick your face into your plate?
"Go ahead," Wagamama seems to be saying, "You know you want to. Get in there!" And so, on a recent rainy evening, a friend and I did just that.
We both remembered the chain fondly from our travels in London. Founded there in 1992, the Wagamama concept has so far been exported to Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland, Cyprus, Denmark, Dubai, Turkey, and now the United States. Inside, patrons sit at long, communal wooden tables set with paper placemats and chopsticks. Don’t know how to use chopsticks? Neither did the guy from Southie sitting next to me. Not to worry-forks are available-you just have to ask.
I started with an apple-lime juice because I could see a server behind the counter feeding whole fruits into a big, industrial juicer. The glass of bright green juice ($4) was foamy on top and absolutely fresh, with the lime adding a nice tang to the already tart green apple flavor. As partial as I usually am to a glass of wine or beer with dinner, I felt like I had done something good for my body by choosing the juice.
Wagamama cultivates the idea of healthfulness with its emphasis on fresh ingredients, its clean, minimalist d�cor, and a tagline that reads "positive eating+positive living." Still, it’s nice to know that beer and wine-along with sake-are available; the menu lists a decent assortment of Asian imports, including Kirin and Asahi (both $5).
The Wagamama waitstaff is young, friendly, and decidedly international, with an array of accents, hair colors, piercings, and tattoos. I didn’t detect a British accent in the bunch, though I had heard rumors that a contingent of British noodle experts would be on hand for the opening during the last week of April.
Don’t know how to use chopsticks? Neither did the guy from Southie sitting next to me. Not to worry-forks are available-you just have to ask.
Anywhere you sit on the restaurant’s first floor (stairs inside the front door lead to a lower level below ground), you can see directly into the open stainless steel kitchen, where chefs stir-fry noodles on a hot griddle. Servers say that dishes will be delivered as soon as they’re ready-no heat lamps here-and they encourage patrons to begin eating as soon as their food arrives.
Sure enough my companion’s Miso soup ($3) arrived within minutes, at just the right temperature in a dainty earthenware bowl, with a small dish of colorful Japanese pickles alongside. My dinner came next: a plate of ginger chicken udon noodles ($11) with snow peas, red onion, bean sprouts, chili, egg, and scallion. The noodles were thick, with a spongy consistency that made them fun to eat, and quite different from the lo mein and Singapore noodles I’m used to. They came topped with a generous helping of bright pink pickled ginger and fresh green cilantro. My companion’s noodles were the same udon variety, but hers came with curry oil, shiitake mushrooms, shrimp, green and red peppers, and a sprinkling of spicy fish powder, fried shallots, and black and white sesame seeds on top ($11).
We were both impressed by the colorful presentations on our plates. On a subsequent visit, I tried a vegetarian dish ($10, marked with a red "v" on the menu) that was equally artful and tasty-thin slices of eggplant, sweet potato and butternut squash that had been well coated with panko, deep-fried, and topped with a yellow curry sauce. They came accompanied by white rice and a green salad with a light, gingery dressing.
The menu also features ramen noodle soups and coconut milk soups (ranging from $9 to $14), a variety of chili men noodle dishes in spicy red sauce ($10-$12), as well as salads and small sides like edamame ($4) and gyoza (hot dumplings, $6).
The only flaw in our experience came with the process of placing our orders, an awkward combination of low- and high-tech steps. The server writes the dishes’ menu numbers on the placemats, then keys them into a little hand-held remote-control-looking device, which evidently transmits the order to the kitchen. Except that there are a few glitches still to be worked out-namely, the servers don’t know the menu numbers, nor do they seem very familiar with the hand-held technology, considering the difficulty our server had with placing our order and splitting the check at the end of our meal.
With a line that stretches the length of Quincy Market at lunchtime, Wagamama has arrived at just the right moment in Boston, when Faneuil Hall is decorating itself with red-and-white flags and t-shirts that spell out "gyroball" in Japanese characters. But it’s going to take some time for this location to operate as smoothly and seamlessly as its UK parent restaurants. And that’s just fine-as long as they continue to do the noodles right.
Wagamama opens at lunchtime and serves until 11pm every night except Sunday, when it closes at 10. In warm weather, a wall of glass doors will open to an outdoor patio that accommodates fifty people. A second Wagamama location will arrive to Harvard Square this summer.
For more info, visit Wagamama online at: www.wagamama.com
Andrea Calabretta is a freelance writer and editor living in Back Bay.