Where: 210 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010
Crowd: Trend-seeking 20-somethings
Vibe: Group-friendly dining with something for everyone
Standout dish: Firecracker Prawn
I get to Madison Square Park early and per usual, wander into Eataly to kill time. 15 minutes and a lot of self-restraint later (it’s truffle season, after all), I leave empty-handed and arrive at Wagamama’s front door. It’s a chilly night and a good dozen guests are waiting for tables near the massive open kitchen.
I'm not surprised there's a line – it's just opened, and most people I know (well, most foodies) have been waiting to pounce. After all, it is the first New York offering from the popular UK-based ramen chain.
I quickly shoot my friend a text saying, “I’m here!” “So am I,” she replies, but I don’t spot her in the crowd. I poke my head further in and that’s when I realize the restaurant runs down the entire city block. Cozy, intimate Ramen-Ya this is not.
I walk through the dining room from Fifth Avenue to Broadway to meet her. Like the locations in its native London, this Wagamama has a clean, modern look to it: wooden communal tables, exposed brick wall, dangling pendant lamps, you know the deal.
We get to our seats – a cozy booth in the middle of the room – and our server Cecily promptly greets us. She explains the ordering system — item numbers are scribbled on our paper place-mats so they know who’s getting what – and leaves us to look over the Asian fusion menus.
They're pretty sprawling, and more than a little culturally ambiguous, with offerings ranging from teppanyaki to donburi to salad. I'm starving, so skip over the last option, but do note the intriguing brunch section (brunch ramen? yes please) and make a mental note to return.
More importantly, the NYC Wagamama is the first Stateside location to have a full cocktail menu (sorry Boston!), so there’s no question we’re starting with drinks; the Yuzu Mojito for her and signature Mai Tai for me.
The cocktails land at our table and the mojito – made with rum, fresh lime juice, yuzu liqueur and lots of mint – is definitely an easy sipper. It’s light and bubbly, perfect with a plate of the chili squid, which is fried just right. Our other starter, the pork belly and panko apple hirata steamed bun, is a bit lackluster. The meat’s on the chewy side and it definitely needs a more generous slather of Japanese mayo.
Entrees arrive one at a time. First up, the Firecracker Prawn, which despite falling under the “curry” header, is more like a sweet-and-spicy stir-fry than a true curry. As we’re digging in, a manager walks by and mentions that it’s a staff favorite. I can see why – the shrimp is cooked properly, the vegetables have a nice bite and the sauce boasts a strong kick.
The Shirodashi Pork Ramen, however, is less satisfying. Once again, the pork belly’s a bit tough and noodles a tad too soft for my liking. The chicken-based broth lacks the umami factor I was hoping for, but diners looking for a lighter ramen (there’s also a heaping pile of pea shoots and perfect tea-cooked egg) would probably be happy with it.
We spend so much time chatting, we almost forget about dessert. Even though I’m not a huge fan of the fruit, the Banana Katsu looks too interesting not to get and we go with the Mango Mousse Cake as backup. As I predict, the panko-breaded and deep-fried banana just isn’t my thing, but the accompanying salted caramel ice cream is downright amazing. So is the lemon sorbet that comes with the mousse, and we both agree that we could easily polish off a pint of each.
Dessert, like the rest of our meal, proves both a hit and a miss. Wagamama is just a little too Anglo-Japanese to stack up to a lot of the top-notch Asian food we're blessed with having in NYC. But if you need a place with strong drinks, quick and friendly service, and enough seats for a big party, this is the place.
We consider swinging by the nearby Flatiron Lounge for a nightcap. The menu changes seasonally and a few of the fall cocktails had caught my eye (hello, Blackberry Fool), but alas, I need to get groceries. Next time, when adulting doesn't get in the way.
Disclaimer: VIVA was a guest of Wagamama restaurant, however opinions and comments made by the writer remain unbiased and independent.