Since moving to Melbourne, one of the many things I enthuse about to friends back home is the lack of big-name chains – I can only think of two Starbucks in the CBD, a handful of Pizza Hut/Dominoes kind of places in the inner suburbs and, when compared to the average medium-sized Brit city, hardly a McDonald’s in sight. And it’s not just food and drink outlets – with clone high streets springing up all over Mother England it is a breath of fresh air to wander past loads of independent boutiques, coffee shops and restaurants on a daily basis.
So when we spotted a Wagamama (a canteen-style Japanese eatery serving curry, gyoza and soba) hidden down the Spring Street end of Flinders Lane we welcomed this reminder of home with a hint of trepidation. Off the top of my head, I think there were around 15 of these places in Zones 1 and 2 when we left – not a massive amount by London standards – and the long wooden benches had become synonymous with a quick, tasty and cheap feed. And, most importantly, a safe option in a city overrun with dodgy all-day Chinese buffets and tourist traps with touts outside. Whether you order in Manchester, Birmingham or London town, and indeed Melbourne as we soon found out, your favourite dish will be identical. Not that there is anything wrong with this at all, as my beloved mother – a diehard Waga fan – will tell you.
So why the trepidation? One of the other things that really impressed us about Melbourne was the abundant availability of good Asia food (and yes, of course there are many not-so good Asian places). I wouldn’t know where to head for Vietnamese pho, Korean bulgogi and kim chi, and Seoul-style fried chicken back home, but here we find ourselves dining out on all this and more for around the $20 a head mark. So we wondered if Michelin-starred chef Alan Yau’s cheap food for the masses would stand up over here when there are already so many great – independent – places.
However, this tried and tested formula is obviously working over here – there are also outlets in Brisbane and Sydney – and it was the mould-breaking Southgate opening that had us thinking the Waga guys might have grand plans for down under. Instead of going for their usual generic warehouse/basement space this riverside location is open-plan, but comprised of several areas making it feel more intimate and, dare I say it, somewhere you might actually head to make an evening of it, as opposed to the in-and-out dining experience we are used to it offering.
When we visited, we were lucky enough to experience a sake and soba degustation menu, which isn’t available at the moment, but is hopefully something they will offer to larger parties in the coming months as the experience is both enjoyable and educational. So – with food from head chef Scott Davis and master sake-maker Toshi as our guide we tasted our way through themed sake and food parings that moved from coast to mountain to city. Highlights included:
- (a bit of a mouthful but as good as a sparkling wine and light, easy drinking at 6.5%) Kizakura Hoshinnonagarea Happo sparkling junmai from Kyoto – was peachy and naturally carbonated.
- Chilli squid – not deep-fried – just generously covered in a spicy-savoury rub and amazingly tender – served with a room temperature rich sake from Akita called Ranman Tokusen ginjo.
- Beef teriyaki and spicy itame with warm ‘male’ and ‘female’ sakes. Served at 55-60 degrees the male offering from Hyogo is dry and spiced, and purportedly bestows the drinker with dragon power. While the female sake from Kyoto is elegant and subtle – one of the reasons for this is that the water from this area has less minerals. So, just as soil impacts grapes used to make wine, different water compositions result in different rice qualities and therefore different sakes.
- Distilled barley shochu that resembles whisky (25%) and a plum liquor – Choya Umeshu from Osaka – served with green tea ice cream sandwich with black sesame ice cream – unusual but good flavours
We like Wagamama and it is a pleasure to see it here in Australia – especially if they continue to push the boundaries of the no-frills formula. Get dressed up, sip a few sakes, be sure to try everyone else’s dish (or how will you find your favourite to order next time?) and soak up the views from the balcony.
3 Southgate Avenue
Tel. (03) 9696 9140 / http://www.wagamama.com.au
Friday and Saturday 10am-1am