Real Meals: Mama said knock udon out
Wagamama has been serving a bizarre fusion cuisine - part Japanese traditional, part English nursery slop - for nigh on 20 years now. When the first restaurant opened in the early 1990s its exposed kitchens and austere interior design seemed the dernier cri in foodurism. Checking out the T-shirted waiting staff, punching orders into handheld computer terminals, one was convinced that this was exactly the joint where Deckard the blade runner would chow down, were he sent to hunt replicants in London.
However, nothing is ever so dated as the future - or, as Theodor Adorno put it: "The new is the longing for the new, not the new itself." And while during the fin de siècle we may have yearned for flying cars and sexy cyberwomen, what the Noughties brought instead was robotic waiting staff and a strange syncretism of occidental consumption and oriental production, which means that there must now be a significant proportion of British yoof who inhabit an entirely Japanese materiality: shopping at Uniqlo and Muji, eating at Wagamama, reading manga comics and fiddling about with Sony netbooks. All while remaining utterly ignorant of Shinto, Buddhism, the films of Akira Kurosawa and the novels of Mishima. Everything has been lost in translation except the profit motive.
On a grey Tuesday lunchtime in central London, quite a few of these faux Tokyo Joes were waiting to be seated at the Wagamama my nephew Jack and I decided on gracing.
Jack, who as well as being familiar with the films of Kurosawa is also a nascent architect, dismissed Wagamama's detailing with a few choice ascriptions: the tables were beech laminate not beech, the walls were clad in varnished birch (you could tell by the birling). "I once ate in a Wagamama in Bath," the neph' animadverted. "The staff were incredibly pushy." I, too, have eaten at the Wagamama in Bath. I've also eaten at the one in Nottingham. I've eaten in many other Wagamamas as well. I like the nice fit between blandly ethnic food and institutional decor - I even quite like the service. Sometimes I think my ideal meal out is being served a slice of white bread by an aggressive anaesthetist in an operating theatre. But the only farinaceous items on the menu were noodles, so I opted for a seafood ramen while Jack had the ginger chicken udon. We both requested green tea.
“See," Jack plainted once the servitor had scribbled her hieroglyph on our paper placemats. "She asked us whether we wanted side orders, she didn't wait for us to request them. It's like MacDonald's: 'Will you have fries with that?'" Once he'd put it like that I had to concede: I hadn't wanted a side order, yet did feel a little compelled into ordering a portion of duck gyoza, parenthetic little dumplings that arrived tardily in a dish of sickly-sweet plum sauce.
Naughty but nice
There are 65 Wagamamas in the UK and a further 35 abroad. That's a lot of plum sauce. The chain's website defines Wagamama as “a wilful or naughty child", but others contend that it simply means "selfish" in Japanese. Either sense suits the Wagamama experience perfectly, for as I dabbled in my vegetable stock, it struck me that here I was, sating a very infantile taste while seated in the gustatory equivalent of a reform school.
Jack said proper Japanese cooking never uses chunks of pickled ginger, only the most gossamer shavings. He could barely manage half of his chicken udon, while I devoured my dory, my squid, my kamaboko and my wakame, before slurping down my vegetable broth and then flubbering up my ramen noodles. Intellectuals - pah!
As for wakame, this edible kelp is really the signature dish of Wagamama; a highly invasive species, carried worldwide in the ballast tanks of ships, it now clogs up harbours from Auckland to the Solent. Indeed, looked at one way, Wagamama is only a Brit riposte to the presence of this rampant seaweed in our territorial waters.
Speaking of waters, the waitress had warned us to expect our dishes "at different times", but when our green tea still hadn't arrived by the dessert stage (chocolate cake, naturally), I snapped at the maître d' - a clone with a headset - and it tipped up in seconds. Then, by way of compensation, he knocked the duck gyoza off the bill. If Wagamama is a nursery for style victims, then this chap was definitely a supernanny. Result.
Real Meals runs fortnightly