Wagamama opens in Sheffield
The Japanese noodle bar chain Wagamama opened a branch in Sheffield’s redeveloped Leopold Square a few weeks ago, and along with my mystery dining companion I got tickets to one of the preview nights. Since I found out about this promotion through the lively Sheffield Forum, I posted a brief review of the restaurant online the next day. A few flattering comments about my review encouraged me to share it again here. I’ve made a few corrections for the sake of grammar.
… Went to Wagamama’s last night for one of the preview meals. I’ve eaten in their London and Amsterdam branches before, and first off loved the food. Great flavours, textures and well balanced dishes. The Wagamama “big concept” is that food should be cooked, served and eaten fresh, meaning dishes come at different times as soon as they’re ready. Nice idea, but my main dish arrived fifteen minutes after my friend’s. Now I like the idea of cooking something to order and getting it to me fresh, but a good restaurant will do that anyway and know how to cook dishes at the right time to be served together. It’s a big black mark for laziness disguised as trendy concept cooking. Similarly, it’s a bit superfluous for the waitresses to be scribbling dish numbers on our paper placemats if every other server still has to ask who’s eating what when they bring it to the table.
The freshly squeezed fruit and veg juices are great – a very refreshing appetizer. Didn’t try the beers, probably a mistake since only the house wine was on offer and it was pretty naff. Our starters were both dumplings – great seasoning and spicing, and the little dipping sauces were great too. My friend had a coconut-soup-based noodle dish (forget the name) which was very filling and well spiced, but the noodles were on the undercooked side of firm.
The biggest disappointment is basically the restaurant design itself. When the chain started, their branches (notably the one near Piccadilly Circus) were architectural treats: clever, minimalist and well detailed. The Leopold Square complex has that depressing air about it that so many new Sheffield developments or refurbs have: the whole development has been clumsily converted from an old school with no attention to detail, and absolutely no joy in those little bits that make a building really beautiful to be in. Whereas Strada across the square have made a real effort to dress and decorate their dining room to create an ambiance and atmosphere, Wagamama’s have basically slapped a coat of white paint to the builder’s plasterboard and specified the cheapest skirting, tiles and a set of lighting tracks that look like they belong in an office. The original branches made the minimalist Japanese canteen concept cool and appealing. This branch’s design just feels like a rush job. The premium Wagamama charges in its menu over East One or any of Sheffield’s other noodle bars isn’t justified by the atmosphere.
We were sat at the furthest end of the restaurant from the door, so I spent most of the evening looking at the bleak white wall that frames the old windows onto Leopold Street. There’s nothing wrong with cutting through two floors to insert a new one-and-a-half-height space, but they missed a great trick here with some colour, some texture, maybe even exposed materials from the old building. We felt like we were in a white plastic box that was stuck inside an old building… no real connection from inside to out (so Hooters fans might regret not being able to ogle at the busty blondes who haven’t heard of feminism)
Finally, I appreciate the hard work put in by all the staff, and forgive any of the minor problems with service. It’s a great idea to have trial nights to make sure everything runs smoothly. My only tip is the same I’d give to almost every server in this city: don’t hover around diners so much waiting for us to clear our plates, and not to keep asking if our glasses are done with before they’re not.
So: great food, but the whole excitement about Wagamama is the style and concept, and both the Leopold Square units and the Wagamama designers have cut corners. I’d still say that East One in the West One complex does everything Wagamama does better, with a bigger menu, bigger portions and cheaper prices. And it does it without any failed aspirations to be a trendy minimalist canteen.