KATSU IF YOU CAN: The yasai katsu curry at Wagamama is a deep-fried treat.
I’m not supposed to like Wagamama, but I do. I’m not supposed to like chains, and Wagamama is a UK-based chain with 79 restaurants in 10 countries. (The Harvard Square and Quincy Market locations are the first US outlets.) I hate loud restaurants, and Wagamama is a long, open room with an open kitchen, louder than most Harvard University dining halls. I also hate standing in lines, so I should gripe that Wagamama doesn’t take reservations. But since it’s fast and large, the lines are never long. Still, why pay more here when authentic Japanese food is as close as Porter Square?
Wagamama | 57 JFK Street, Cambridge | Open Mon-Wed, 11:30 am–10 pm; Thurs–Sat, 11:30 am–11 pm; and Sun, Noon–10 pm | AE, DI, MC, VI | Beer and wine | No valet parking; $2-off validation at harvard square garage | Ramped street-level access via winthrop street | 617.499.0930
Because Wagamama is quick, tasty, and fun. Never mind that most of the flavor comes from salt and hot pepper, with dashes of sweet. That’s part of the fun, and also part of the fusion, since Wagamama is a Japanese noodle house with a lot of Malaysian-British influence.
Food comes out whenever it’s ready and is delivered by random servers. But the Wagamama staff seems to have this organized, so everyone gets the right food fast — even if the main dishes sometimes precede appetizers (here called “Side dishes: these are not appetizers”).
Of the “side dishes” I had, I was most impressed by the grilled asparagus ($6.50). The dry heat concentrates the flavor, and the five spears, with their Japanese togarashi (sesame-pepper-salt) seasoning, are as irresistible as popcorn. Duck gyoza ($6.95) brings baked dumplings with thin skins and meaty fillings, and comes with an excellent sweet, rich, and hot dip. Raw salad ($3.95) may be just greens, but it’s dressed up by a fish-sauce-based dressing and crisp onion bits.
As for the entrées, chicken ramen ($9.50) is what you’ll want when fall’s cold strikes. There’s not a lot of broth, but what is there is clear and light — a Chinese-type stock with slices of grilled chicken breast, reconstituted dried bamboo, a smattering of scallions, and side of baby spinach leaves. The classic way to eat this dish is with chopsticks; using your dominant hand, pick up noodles and other bits and place them in the ladle-like soup spoon. But conventional forks and spoons are also available.
Chicken kare lomen ($11.75) has the same general arrangement as the ramen, with a thick broth based on coconut milk, lemongrass, and galangal, similar to the Thai coconut-chicken soup. It’s hotter, more complex, and less sweet and aromatic than the Thai version, but another sprinkle of cilantro and a wedge of lime make it sing.
Yaki soba ($9) is fried noodles made to taste like drier fried rice with egg, bits of chicken, tiny shrimp, scallion, bean sprouts, peppers, and a garnish of sesame seeds and hard bits of shallot or onion. It’s the most addictive piece of fast food I’ve let myself near in years. Teriyaki steak soba ($13.75) adds a small grilled steak in slices almost small enough for chopsticks. But this dish isn’t as interesting, despite the addition of bok choy and snow peas. I should add that both of these soba are based on ramen noodles, not buckwheat noodles, which I first associate with soba.
For a real forbidden — albeit trans-fat free — treat, try the yasai katsu curry ($9.50), a platter of breaded and deep-fried slices of sweet potato, winter squash, and eggplant with a brown curry sauce ($1.50 as an add-on to other dishes) that packs a little heat and a lot of flavor. With it comes a mound of medium-grain sticky rice and a small salad.
If you’re in the market for Asian-style fish salad ($10.95), I would suggest you go to a real Thai restaurant, since this shredded salad is small, even with a grilled barramundi (an Australian river fish now farmed in the UK and US) filet. Besides, the coconut-chili-cilantro dressing is nice but needs the sour richness of fish sauce.
Wagamama has a small, plausible wine list, but this is beer food. I’d go with the Asahi Super Dry ($4.50/12 ounces; $6.95/22 ounces), a clean, sharp lager from Japan. A bottle of Tiger Beer ($4.50), out of Malaysia but partially owned by Heineken, also was fresh and clean, with hoppy and flowery notes in the nose. Green tea (free) is light and thin, and very drinkable on cold nights.
For a place with rapid-fire table turnover, Wagamama has desserts that make you want to linger. Citrus lime mousse ($4.95) tastes like fake Key-lime pie, and has a nice toasted-coconut overlay. Stem-ginger cheesecake ($5.50) is British Chinoiserie: cheesecake on a gingerbread-cookie base with a fresh ginger flavor. This could spread.
Service, despite the confusing concept, is friendly and lightning fast. If you’re a talker, you may have to defend your dinner from several attempts to take it away. The room is bright and full of long, bamboo-colored tables, each seating many pairs or three groups of four, or sometimes six squeezing in for a picnic-table effect. The crowd is young, quick, and out for fun — sort of like the food.
Think of it as a restaurant for speed-dating. You wouldn’t try to have a serious conversation here, and you shouldn’t expect to eat a serious meal, or make Wagamama food a part of your regular diet. But for a quick meal that covers the food groups with a few twists, Wagamama delivers and amuses.
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