This month we have decided to focus mostly on Japanese Culture & Cuisine where food is concerned so after some Asian cuisine research we settled on one of the hottest noodle restaurants in town!
This morning I woke up practically wagging my tail for Wagamama. Excited to sample the Japanese-style cuisine, I made my way to the flagship store in Belfast's Victoria Square.
On arrival I met with manager Sonia Lipton and we caught up over a refreshing green tea - probably a good idea not to jump right into the food, it's still only 11am!
I've visited Wagamama restaurants in the past but have never experimented with the menu and usually stick with the popular Katsu Chicken Curry but today I was willing to take Sonia's advice and taste some of the more traditional Japanese dishes.
The set up of Wagamama is very casual, cafeteria style, with long wooden benches and crisp white walls surrounding. The atmosphere is clean and breathable with a very chic and cosmopolitan twist.
For me, Wagamama is a great lunch joint if you're craving something more than a sandwich (which I always am!) It's a fun place for families with young children as well as large groups of friends and coworkers. They offer a diverse Japanese menu with something on there for everyone no matter how fussy you may be.
Something you may not be used to that happens here is the service style, your meal is served the second it is ready, that means your order may be served before the rest of your party - the real reasoning behind this is so that the food is as fresh as it possibly can be when it reaches you - and that for me is a winner!
I love how the food is prepared in front of you, the kitchen is out in the open and you can watch master Japanese chefs at work on the woks or the traditional teppanyaki grill. I was lucky enough to get into the kitchen to watch chef Bobby rustle up some Japanese goodness for me!
I was interested in learning more about Wagamama, the story behind the chain and the inspiration so I sat down with Sonia for a short interview.
Sonia, I'm sure you have a busy schedule! What's a regular day at Wagamama for you?
I start my regular day with a visit to the bank at 10am then return to the restaurant to check my emails and to follow up on maintenance issues. We begin set up at 11am, preparing the floor plan and meeting with the team for a brief. Service is 12-6pm on the floor running shift, as manager I remain on the floor throughout duty, we are open all day. Around 3pm I check my mails again, place orders and follow up on any outstanding issues. My day also includes rota scheduling, budget planning, marketing and getting out and about to promote corporate offers and upcoming events.
There has been an increase in the demand for Japanese cuisine in the past few years. Why do you think its popularity is on the rise?
Japanese cuisine is simple yet exquisite. Fresh, healthy and easy to make with staple ingredients such as rice, noodles, fish and vegetables. The traditional soup style dishes (ramen), sushi/sashimi and curries have been taken in their original form and been given a westernised twist to suit our culture and lifestyles redefining the idea of fast food. Nowadays, people are more in tune with their diet and lifestyle therefore there is a huge focus on looking after ourselves through what we eat and Japanese cuisine promotes every aspect of this.
You are known for authentic Asian flavours, do you ever explore or use any local ingredients or flavours in your dishes?
We source all ingredients (seafood, vegetables, steak) from local suppliers as we believe in promoting local produce. We currently have an Irish seaweed salad on the menu which has four different types of seaweed, all sourced and farmed in Cork, this puts an Irish twist on traditional Japanese style dishes.
What three course meal would you recommend to someone who has never experienced Japanese cuisine?
To start I'd recommend Gyoza - Japanese style dumplings, steamed for the healthy option. Moving onto a main, Wagamama's signature ramen with a side of wok fried greens and to satisfy the sweet tooth - mochi, which is a rice wrapped ice cream available in flavours of sesame, raspberry and coconut.
What does Wagamama mean?
Wagamama - meaning selfish or wilful is a Japanese expression used to describe a spoilt or naughty child.
What makes this restaurant stand out from competitors?
Three key factors make the Wagamama experience different to any other. The first is customer care, our highest priority in day-to-day operations. The quality of food and value for money plays a key role and of course the style and catering technology in a very clean environment. The minimalism of the restaurant interior gives our customers a unique dining experience without being style conscious. In 2009, Wagamama launched the first completely automated national eat out ordering system.
Talk me through the most unusual or adventurous dish on your menu?
For Belfast customers, it has to be a Wagamama ramen - noodles in a miso ginger and vegetable soup topped with grilled chicken, Japanese marinated pulled pork, mussels, half a tea stained egg, chikuwa, mixed seaweeds and seasonal greens then garnished with menma and spring onion - a traditional Japanese ramen dish.
What's your favourite plate on the menu? Savoury and sweet?
Yasai Itame - rice noodles in a spicy green coconut and lemongrass soup topped with stir fried tofu, beansprouts, red and spring onions, bok choi, peppers, mushrooms and chillies and garnished with coriander and lime.
For sweet, I go for Coconut Onigiri - balls of sticky rice mixed with coconut, deep fried with panko breadcrumbs and served with passion fruit sauce.
The interior is very casual chic, where does the inspiration for the design come from?
A distinctive element of Wagamama is the minimalism of the restaurant interior. The bare basics approach of our interior design helps us to attract customers of all ages, races, religious and social backgrounds - a truly egalitarian environment. Wagamama was designed as a non-destinational dining experience based upon ramen bars which have been popular in Japan for more than 200 years. The minimalist interior allows for this non-destinational dining, meaning our customers do not have to make a special plan to visit but can always come along when they feel hungry.
How do you think Japanese cuisine influences the way we eat today?
As mentioned already, Japanese cuisine is re-defining fast food, it's fresh, healthy, simple and a fun way to dine. It's good to share or eat alone and there's an emphasis on seasonal ingredients. A characteristic of traditional Japanese food is the sparing use of red meat, oils and fats and dairy products. We use different cooking techniques to incorporate raw (sashimi), grilled, simmered, steamed, deep-fried, vinegared, or dressed to suit most needs.
With the questions done and dusted, it was time for me to jet off to another meeting but don't worry, Wagamama boxed up my Japanese delights, they offer a takeaway service which means you never have an excuse not to enjoy Wagamama on a busy day at the office! Interview done and I was off, excited to share this wonderful food with my colleague Scott.
When I got back to the office this afternoon, we tucked into a Saien Soba (traditional fried tofu and fresh vegetables), Yaki Soba (teppan-fried noodles with chicken and shrimp) as well as my favourite, Chicken Chilli Men, a chicken and noodle dish fried up with vegetables. Oh and of course our 'trio of desserts' - one of which I enjoyed en route so I told Scott it was a 'duo of desserts' - shh! These included Lemon & Summer Berry Cheesecake, White Chocolate & Ginger Cheesecake and Chocolate Wasabi Cake - what's not to love! With the current cold weather in Ireland, Wagamama's healthy and hearty cuisine was like a great big hug and we'll definitely be returning soon.
Victoria Square, Belfast