Last week we fought through the mid-week torrential downpours and diabolic City Centre rush-hour traffic to try out Wagamama’s new summer menu, along with a group of other local bloggers at the Birmingham Bullring. We don’t really eat at chains, and having not visited the Japanese restaurant in a few years, we were curious to find out what they were up to.
Upon arrival, we were warmly greeted and seated, with introductions to the front of house and Regional Development Chef for London, Craig Beavors. He took us through the menu and what we could expect over the evening, briefly describing the new dishes and affirming that none of us had any allergies or objections. Bellies growling at the ready, we didn’t have to wait long for the first course to arrive.
We kicked off with Beef Tataki – a light starter of thinly sliced seared beef, chilled, and dressed with citrus ponzu, chilli, Japanese mayo and pickled beetroot. We were advised by Craig to top each slice with a few strands of beetroot, roll them up, and eat. As lovers of beef, we thought this was a solid starter – simple ingredients, punchy flavours, and nicely presented.
Neither of us would normally order fish when eating out, especially if presented with alternatives such as duck, beef or pork, but we were pleasantly surprised by the next two courses: Seared Nuoc Cham Tuna Steak on a bed of quinoa and stir-fried kale, and Grilled Bream Donburi. The tuna steak was a firm favourite amongst the guests, many of whom had never eaten rare tuna before. The sustainably-sourced tuna meat was of high quality and perfectly seasoned, with a soft, melting texture. I would never pick out anything served with the dreadfully clean-sounding combination of kale and quinoa, but honestly, I would eat this dish again. It’s perfect for summer and would pair nicely with a quality, crisp white wine.
The Donburi was really tasty but in many ways for me, didn’t quite nail the summer theme. Donburi to me, is comfort food. The bream was good, with a lovely crispy skin, and the crunchy vegetables, kimchee, and glass of Pinot Grigio went some way to making it a bit fresher, but ultimately I would opt for something else on a summer’s day.
Finishing the mains, was the new Samla Curry (of Cambodian origin, I believe - both chicken and tofu options on the menu), and the unctuous Sticky Pork Belly. Before that, though, chef Craig did me a solid by making me my very own course of Chicken Katsu Curry after I admitted that I had never eaten it before (really!). It was delicious, and it’s pretty obvious why the general public go mad for this stuff (Japanese, better presented equivalent of KFC?), but as foodies, we’re always in the market for something more complex.
We got this complexity with the Samla Curry. I don’t think we’ll ever be tofu converts, but the chicken variation was bang on. Perfect amount of heat – the kind that makes you salivate – with notes of fragrant lemon grass and cooling coconut, garnished with chilli and spring onion. They also use chicken thigh, rather than breast meat for the Samla, which has a much better flavour. The Pork Belly is another flavoursome dish, but be warned – it’s bloody rich! (Again, maybe better suited to cooler weather?) Both the Samla and the Pork Belly were served with Wagamama's own brilliant craft beers – the Kikku and the Kansho, in that order – and they were great pairings. The wines of the evening were pretty standard, but the beers were excellent. Sadly, but understandably, you can only get them in-house at Wagamama restaurants (otherwise I’d have ordered a few cases!).
Dinner was completed with a selection of desserts. We had to admit that we had never eaten from, or indeed even seen, the dessert menu at Wagamama before. In the past, we’ve been too full of savoury to bother. The Lemongrass & Lime Sorbet was really lovely, however. It had a zingy, sherbet flavour and was a perfect palette cleanser. The Chocolate Layer Cake and Yuzu & Lemon Tart we tried were nice, but we felt that they weren’t as accomplished as the rest of the menu.
To complete the evening, under the chef’s mischievous eye, we had the option to sample a weird concoction from the kitchen: vanilla ice cream with katsu curry sauce. It wasn’t for everyone, and you can only really make up your mind once you’ve tried it, but I won’t lie – I had more than one spoonful.
Although Wagamama is fundamentally a franchise, their dishes are largely based on fresh ingredients, cooked quickly. Sourcing high quality ingredients, developing their menu, and focussing on front of house, allows them to offer "fast food" but in a more nutritious, more delicious, more enjoyable format than most of their competitors.
We were really quite impressed by the Summer menu. I don’t think we’ll leave it so long before we drop by next time.