London’s massively popular Asia-by-way-of-Britain chain Wagamama has finally arrived in NYC at 210 Fifth Ave., a spacious modern Japanese space spread across two floors in NoMad. Executive chef Steve Mangleshot brought over a menu of highlights from the U.K. with categories of ramen, donburi (rice bowls), teppanyaki (noodle bowls) and curries. Seating is largely communal at long tables, and there’s a full bar with Asian takes on classics like the Mai Tai and Cosmopolitan, which benefits greatly from swapping vodka for shochu.
Though its name is Japanese, the menu draws flavors and techniques from the entirety of Asia, from China to South Korea, adapting them for British tastes. The concept can be a delight in dishes like the pork bao with fried apple, sriracha and just a little mayonnaise (“to act like butter”), which echoes an updated Sunday roast. But the restaurant often goes too far in tempering Asia’s bombastic flavors, ending up with dishes that merely hint at their country of origin before fading away on the palate.
For every delicate bite of fried chili squid lashed with a nose-tingling sweet-spicy vinegar, there’s teriyaki donburi whose defining characteristic is a vague sweetness (and there’s too little of the sauce). Tori kara age (crispy chicken thigh) is both well fried and paired with spiced sesame sauce, but the plasticine cheesecake would be an embarrassment even outside of a city with its own style of the dessert. Expertly sliced and cooked steak bulgogi is lost in a sea of underseasoned soba, which to my nose gave off an unpleasant funk. Unfortunate, as it’s the chain’s signature noodle imported from London (though a local supplier is being sought), though its udon and rice noodles don’t suffer from the same affliction.
That said, the chain didn’t get to 130 locations by serving misses. Their ramen (eight kinds) trends away from the fatty tonkotsu style toward the cleaner flavors of Vietnamese pho, resulting in bowls that are warming and refreshing. The star of our tasting was the itame, a soup-y take on Thai green curry with a coconut-lemongrass broth and wide rice noodles, packed full of raw red onions, stir-fried bean sprouts (which should be their standard preparation) and a whole handful of cilantro. Bright and completely satisfying, it’s going to be the perfect winter lunch.
Wagamama NYC remains a work in progress even after its official opening this week. Everyone on the team, from Mangleshot down to our waitress, seemed eager for feedback, which means they may still put their foot more firmly on the flavor gas yet. There are also eventual plans for New York-only dishes, so there’s every chance of tweaks being made for Wagamama’s new audience.
For now, the appetizers and curries are all solid choices, and the whole restaurant is stunning. There’s no bad seat in the house, whether you want to watch the team work in the open kitchen or spy on the bar crowd from the counter seats on the second floor.