The newly released Zagat Survey named the top 10 most popular London restaurants, putting a cheap high-street noodle bar right up there at number one. What is going on?
I've noodled my way through various Wagamamas over the years and found them OK - predictable cook-by-numbers stuff at bearable prices. Good if you haven't much time, or money. But, heavens to Betsy, the most popular restaurant in London?
According to the Zagat's Sholto Douglas-Home, Wagamama's win reflects Londoners' appetite for value. According to Wagamama, it proves that value is cool. According to me, it proves there's a bunch of people out there voting on stuff they don't know anything about.
Zagat proudly claims to be the people's choice, polling 5,000 diners " like you" in consumer surveys. Yet the 8,000 people polled to choose their favourite restaurants for the 2006 Harden's Guide not only failed to list Wagamama at the top, but failed to list it in the top 10.
Nobody polled me at all, so I decided to revisit Wagamama and see for myself. But which branch? Today there are more than 50 of them worldwide, with 24 in London alone. I plumped for the original Bloomsbury site, where Alan Yau first launched this much-copied restaurant concept in 1992.
Although Yau left Wagamama in 1997, the concept remains much the same: no bookings, wooden-topped communal tables, backless benches, electronic ordering, and a menu of noodle soups and "side dishes" that come in no particular order. It's a blinder of an idea - for the restaurateur - allowing a fast turnover and a high-profit kitchen.
The Bloomsbury basement lacks the smartness of, say, the new Royal Festival Hall and Canary Wharf sites, and on a Saturday lunchtime, is half-filled with its core clientele. Four girls pore over property floor-plans, post-shopping couples clutch Muji bags, single men nurse newspapers and hangovers, and nuclear families find time to eat together, the kids tucking in to their kiddy noodles like old hands.
Loosely based on the traditional Japanese ramen noodle house, the menu runs from various ramen (egg noodles in soup) dishes to soba and udon noodles cooked on a flat grill, spicy curry noodles in a curry soup, as well as stir fries, rice dishes, and side dishes running from edamame (soy beans in their pods) to pan-fried gyoza dumplings. I take my wife's cousin, Simon, resident in Japan for 12 years, and his Tokyo boyfriend, Yasu. They appear bemused by it all but, then, they cook mainly steak-and-three-veg and lasagne in their tiny Tokyo kitchen.
It's all a bit depressing really. Yasu's cha han (fried rice) comes first, but he's too polite to touch it, so it gets cold until side dishes of gyoza chicken dumplings and edamame finally arrive. There's a wait for our yaki udon (teppan-fried thick noodles with chicken and prawns), Wagamama ramen and the summer special, a fresh, crisp salad of mandarin and sesame chicken. Then there's a yawning chasm until Simon's chicken tama rice arrives, a moulded dome (tama means round, says Yasu) of rice topped with grilled chicken and a gloopy-looking "egg and wine" sauce.
Everything is edible, but nothing, apart from the well-dressed, sprightly salad with its fresh, crisp greens and citrussy dressing, has any spirit or character. The noodles are well cooked, the Asahi beer cold, the Chasan Sauvignon Reserve crisp, the green tea free of charge and the bill for four is a not-unreasonable £75.
What's not to like? Quite a lot. The edamame are pale, yellowing and tired-looking. Gyoza are awful; uncooked and chewy at the joins, with a pasty, tasteless filling. The Wagamama ramen contains a large hank of " crabstick", one of the most odious euphemisms of modern culinary practice. The broth is a million miles from the single-minded, clear-tasting broths of Japanese ramen houses. The ginger on the yaki udon is dyed an alarming fire-engine red. The "spicy ground fish powder" on the udon is salty and harsh. Upon ordering the coconut ice-cream, I am told it will take at least 10 minutes, as the ice-cream has to thaw. Desserts - of high-rise Wagamama chocolate and wasabi fudge cake, and lime and stem ginger tart with soft pastry and a sweaty glaze - are very, very sweet. The green tea tastes brown. I can't catch an eye to get a bill.
So why the hell is it so popular? Because everyone who goes there has found one dish they like, and for six or seven quid they can have it whenever they like.
For me, it's a Japanese aesthetic perverted to a Butlins camp mentality. Dishes are chock-full of up to 13 ingredients which makes you feel as if you are getting good value for money, even when the ingredients are cheap, processed and bland.
You can't argue with it. It's successful. It's full. It feeds people. A lot of people love it. But not everyone.
10 Wagamama 4a Streatham Street, London WC1, tel: 020 7323 9223. Lunch and dinner served daily. Around £45 for two, including wine and service.
Scores 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 ok 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets
More noodle bars
New Culture Revolution 75 Southampton Row London WC1, tel: 020 7436 9706 This is Wagamama Take Two; with its clean lines, wooden tables and contemporary feel, yet the noodles are more Northern Chinese than Japanese. Popular orders include jiao-ji soup dumplings, guo-tei pan-fried dumplings, Sichuan chilli beef lao mein noodles and good old chow mein, as well as crispy duck and clay pot dishes.
Dojo 1-2 Millers Yard, Mill Lane, Cambridge, tel: 01223 363 471 Cambridge's first noodle bar is still popular with students and locals, who tuck into noodles inspired from all over south-east Asia: Malaysian char kueh teow rice noodles, Vietnamese pho noodle soup, Japanese yaki soba, Thai Pad Thai rice stick noodles, and more.
Fuji Hiro Leeds 45 Wade Lane, Merrion Centre, Leeds, tel: 0113 243 9184 There's nothing flash about this basic Japanese café with its cramped feel and bare tabletops, but that doesn't stop the locals from pouring in for the keenly priced enormous bowls of noodles. It's the usual mix of ramen and udon noodles plus the odd Chinese, Thai and Malaysian influence, served with speed and good cheer.
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