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Restaurants: Turning Japanese

The noodle bar explosion continues: now Leeds, too, loves the men with the ramen. Photographs by John Angerson
They're sprouting up so quickly that London's becoming the land of the rising noodle bar. But though most of the components are oriental, this is really a home-grown phenomenon, as genuinely Japanese as a Toyota assembled in Derby. It all started in 1992 when Wagamama emerged as a fully formed concept that brilliantly married minimalist, communal dining with Japanese-style noodle soups and even a potted philosophy of life and healthy eating, expounded in a book, The Way of the Noodle. Since then, it has spawned a string of imitators. And though the right appearance is essential to the success of this streamlined form of speedy feeding, it isn't just a flash in the pan; fast food has, at last, a new south-east-Asian face.

Three main varieties form the backbone of the noodle bar: ramen, thin, wiggly, eggy and originally Chinese; soba, made of buckwheat, and udon, fat, round, white and slippery. Ramen usually bulk out soups, so do udon, and all three can also be pan-fried. The capacious bowls of soup solve the problem of repetitious spoonfuls, since there's the challenge of fishing out the noodles and all the other bits and pieces with chopsticks or a spoon, and then the broth to look forward to. And these meals-in- a-bowl, the combinations of noodles, stock and meat, fish and vegetables served in Japanese street corner noodle shops, are cheap and nutritious.

Wagamama took this nourishing form of food, prepared it in full view of diners in a kitchen of gleaming stainless steel and dished it up in a Bloomsbury basement of dazzlingly designed austerity. Minimalism doesn't just mean having nothing on the walls, it's a highly contrived aesthetic in which less is usually much more expensive. Here, with food as good as it gets for less than pounds 10, it's so accessible there's a continuous queue. Because as well as pioneering a no-smoking policy, it doesn't take bookings for the long shared refectory tables.

Fuji Hiro, a year-old noodle bar in Leeds, must have taken Wagamama as its model, for the menu looks very familiar, smoking isn't allowed, and coincidentally it even insists it follows kaizen, the Japanese managerial quest for continuous small improvements, which no one had ever heard of before the London canteen claimed to use it. Judged by the standards of ruched curtains and riotous wallpaper - as I was assured by a local that it was - it may qualify as minimal but the materials used by leading architects such as John Pawson and David Chipperfield, who separately had a hand in designing two of London's three Wagamamas, do not include basket-weave anaglypta and mock-wood panelling. Nor pictures of junks in Hong Kong harbour. Appearances aside, could it come close to the original in any other way? We tried more than just noodles to get the greatest run for our money (just over pounds 10 a head, and I defy anyone to spend more). Yaki-soba, the noodles fried with chicken, prawns and vegetables was, exclaimed my friend who'd grown up in Hong Kong (not Japan, mind), "the food of my childhood". Yasai cha han, was a rather boring stir-fry of chicken, lettuce, mushroom, spring onions and rice that was difficult to pick up with chopsticks. A trim of strips of pickled courgette round the edge wasn't just decorative, it was the most exciting thing on the plate. This was accompanied by the most intriguing part of the meal, a clear soup with a syrupy consistency and distinct taste of chicken stock and ginger.

"This is more fun," my companions conceded as they delved into bowls of chilli beef ramen and Fuji Hiro ramen in which all the right ingredients (prawns in batter, which became slippery underwater, suckery-looking squid, tofu, slices of tender meat, a boiled egg and a generous tangle of good eggy noodles) bobbed about in a background of broth which, without them, had no character of its own.

The boast is of no monosodium glutamate, but there wasn't enough other flavour to compensate. Gyoza dumplings, crescent-shaped with a crimped edge, and yakitori skewers (guess where we'd seen these before) were adequate.

Though there's another Fuji Hiro in Bradford, and customers were mostly the young trendies who consistently fill the London equivalents, this is more like a thinly disguised, homely mom-and-pop Chinese restaurant. A rather primordial soup shop.

Wagamama, staffed by storm troopers of all nationalities in logo-ed T- shirts who advance on customers armed with a mini-computer pad into which they punch orders, is meanwhile evolving into a corporation. A new branch has opened behind Selfridges in London and, except for the attached coffee bar, the beautiful smoothness and simplicity of the concept remains.

Here, the chicken ramen was packed with grilled breast, menma (pickled bamboo shoots), spring onions and fresh sprigs of leguminous leaves which tasted faintly of nasturtium. The stock, though, was extremely salty; I needed every drop of the high-energy raw juice and the free green tea. It didn't all run smoothly, but this was early days for Wag Mk III. "Oops," said name-badged Richard, "we've run out", when I asked for the prawn gyoza.

Another Wagamama will open next year in Camden Town, London and one in Dublin, and there are more in the pipeline, even a stock market flotation is rumoured. If it ever expands to Leeds, the days of its weaker imitators could be numbered

Fuji Hiro, 45 Wade Lane, Merrion Centre, Leeds (0113 2439184). Mon-Thur noon-10pm. Fri-Sat, noon-11pm. Also at 36 Sunbridge Road, Bradford (01274 728811). Wagamama, 101a Wigmore Street, London W1 (0171-409 0111). Mon- Sat 11.30am-11pm, Sun noon-10pm. Also at 4a Streatham Street, London WC1 (0171-323 9223), 10a Lexington Street, W1 (0171-292 0990).

The Wagamama wannabes, page 70