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Wagamama in Harvard Square

July 8th, 2007 · No Comments

While Linda and I were winding down our honeymoon in 1993 with a fare-saving detour to London (at her employer’s expense—we spent the honeymoon in Provence, and I groused about this callous interruption, but it did pay for her fare, at least to London and back, and gave us three days in a luxury hotel near Kensington, so what the hell) I had a chance to have lunch in a new concept in dining. My friend Gilbert, who lives literally behind the British Museum, advised we should try this place out.

It had opened the year before, and was tres cool, even before such a notion had hit Generation X, never mind Y, which may have been in swaddling clothes at that point. I remember the details clearly, everything about the idea being so well thought out and executed.

Turns out this restaurant, with the (to me) silly name of Wagamama, was only the first of what has become a chain that is among the favorites of UK Zagat guide survey subjects. The address was, and is, 4 Streatham Street, near Bloomsbury. The very spare, though short of austere, decor—what we’ve all come to call (as the expression of a new post-modern élan) minimalist—reminded me of a monk’s refectory blended with a westerner’s notion of classic Japanese interior design, which I would guess for many reduces to a knowledge of Shoji, the “system” of screens and sliding doors and windows that are rife in Westernized representations of the typical house. There were long wooden “cafeteria” tables and benches in rows. In the background, along a perimeter wall, was an open kitchen with a mass of bobbing heads in toques, looking like a perpetual convention of busy cooks.

Within moments of our sitting down, a very polite server appeared with menus and explained that she would be back after we had a chance to select our courses to take our order on her electronic hand-held “pad.” When she took our order, she explained further that the order was transmitted instantaneously to that hubbub I had identified as the kitchen and begun cooking immediately. Hence we could expect our “courses” in the order they were completed. There was an implicit apology to those of us who had hidebound expectations of a starter arriving before a main course, etc. I saw no problem with it, as I prefer food hot (when so intended), and I order for the harmony of the dishes and their ingredients—not because of some esoteric strategy whereby my palate is prepared for the tastes of the main course by the tastes of the starter.

The brilliance of the strategy—altogether—was clear to me. In those days, I was still making my living consulting to clients on marketing and marketing communications, and, being the gadget freak and early adopter that I am, I was impressed with their adaptation of what were then only emerging technologies in commercial applications. The most advanced computer-based graphic input handheld device was the Apple Newton (a failure because it was way before its time—the iPhone, on the other hand, is an apparent triumph and the apotheosis of the Newton ethos, it is what the Newton should have been and couldn’t have been at the time). And nobody, or almost nobody, used RF devices to place orders across the mere expanse of a dining room (the chief benefit, of course, is not the immediacy, though that’s a nice one—but the minimization of errors getting the order to the kitchen and back out again, not to mention the problems of kitchen management and workflow).

The food was wonderful. Essentially, the place was Tampopo mashed up with advanced modern technology and hot notions of London architecture. The menu was a bunch of variants of noodle-based dishes, both soups, and a sort of grilled casserole. You chose according to the protein you preferred (beef, seafood, chicken), with variants in the accompanying ingredients according to your choice. Easy enough as well to satisfy vegetarian appetites. I don’t remember, as I was not and never have been myself a vegan, whether that early on there was much done to satisfy that particular set of gustatory constraints.

I had only the one visit, but it etched itself in my memory, and occasionally (certainly a few times a year—and, alas, we haven’t been back to London since; just tantalizingly close in long connecting layovers at Heathrow) I think back to the place and wish there were one in the United States, within close proximity.

Now there is. The first of the Wagamama outlets in the U.S. was opened and is operating in Faneuil Hall marketplace. Who knew? I took no notice, and was unaware of its existence.

Then, about two weeks ago an email appeared in my in-box inviting me and a friend to a free lunch (with two servings of the limited beer and wine offering) as a guest of the restaurant in their second location: Harvard Square. Somehow Linda had noticed something or other, and submitted my name as an interested party.

So, Bob and I went. Linda was to have been on Block Island (and she wasn’t in the end, but that’s another story). Bob knew nothing about it. I had forgotten the name (I still think it’s silly, but no matter) of the London restaurant that had so impressed me. And I didn’t put 2 and 2 together until we stepped inside.

It was like Yogi’s déja vu all over again. And it was easy to have all those memories triggered to ignite a full synapse overdrive. The London restaurant (their flagship—there are now dozens in that city, and over 40 all over the UK) was designed by Stiff + Trevillion JSP. I don’t know who designed the H^2 outlet, but these acorns haven’t fallen far from the oak.

As for the food, it was as good as I remember, perhaps better. Everything is astoundingly fresh, perfectly cooked, and I’d suggest you simply order what looks good to you. Go to the Web site of the U.S. subsidiary to see the menu they’re using in this country: http://www.wagamama.us/food_menus.php.

Wagamama in Cambridge

This is a perfect place to eat, except under one condition. If you expect a “dining experience” meaning you can pass the lunch hour or the evening at a leisurely pace, and expect all participants in the experience to contribute to the leisure, don’t come here. You won’t be rushed by any means. But everything at Wagamama is designed to minimize the effort required on anyone’s part to have you fed and satisfied, and all at a reasonable price (it’s not McDonald’s however, so don’t expect fast food bargain prices—most of the entrees are between 10 and 15 dollars and well worth it, cooked to order from super fresh ingredients, with generous portions). You can take your time, but they won’t take theirs. The food arrives when it arrives at your table, in whatever order.

The service, recognizing that this was a shake-down event, was, as I expected, a little shaky, but only in terms of the unevenness of the flow of courses. Our “side” dishes arrived last, when we were both well into finishing our noodle mains. In fact, Bob was full, and didn’t touch his side—was going to send it back, until my hand stayed the server. His side was vegetarian gyoza, the Japanese version of potstickers, and they were very hot (temperature wise) and fabulous, with a light, but savory and forward enough in flavor, dipping sauce. I had ordered the grilled asparagus as a side, and that was equally good.

Wagamama opening day in the Square is August 13. I expect them to do very well, and I expect to contribute to that success. They’re a welcome addition to what is a very pedestrian and redundant list of chain restaurants, interspersed among the usual suspects of Square classics (who manage to hang on serving Irish bar food, or bad Chinese, or undistinguished Indian—and sorry, I include Tamarind Bay in that assessment) along with a very variable list of white cloth places (starting with Rialto, Harvest, and Casablanca at the top, and descending slowly from there to the places that seem to come and go with increasing rapidity; I never did make it to Conundrum before it failed…).

Bon appétit… or whatever they say in Japanese London.

Tags: 02138 and environs · Food · Local Food

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