Food review: Wasabi, Grand Central, Birmingham
London chain Wasabi has finally arrived in the Midlands. It serves up fresh sushi, salads and Japanese snacks. Andy Richardson tucks in. . .
There are 53 branches, though only one in our neck of the woods. Wasabi is a London phenomenon that has outlets sprouting up across the capital city.
Delicious sushi and bento are the order of the day, though the not-so-long-ago launch of Birmingham’s brilliant new train terminal brought one to the Second City. Lucky us.
Wasabi is helping to transform Japanese cuisine by making it accessible to the masses. And just like such chains such as Pret a Manger before it – which revolutionised the sandwich industry by doing the simplest of things and making sandwiches that were both fresh and appetising – it’s having a similar effect. Sushi is no longer a preserve of savvy metrosexuals, it’s now a viable alternative to fast foods that generations have enjoyed – but far healthier and more flavoursome.
There’s nothing not to like about Japanese food. Rich in umami-esque taste, light and nutritious and offering more variations than Elgar’s Enigma; Japanese food is a flavourbomb waiting to explode. And Wasabi covers all bases.
That’s not to say it does an impeccable job. Wasabi, like the proverbial football match, is a restaurant of two halves. The cold stuff is good-to-great, the warm stuff mediocre.
Dining is easy. At Grand Central, there are racks and racks of boxes and packets – just like the groaning shelves of Pret. Stacked high with sushi, hot food, salads, snacks and drinks, there’s something to suit all tastes.
Sushi is served individually, as well as boxed, giving diners the opportunity to try 10 million different combinations. Which is scary. Unless you really, really, really like sushi and are planning to live until you’re 27,397 and eat one meal a day. Which is unlikely, even if you eat healthy Japanese food for the rest of your exceptionally, extraordinarily long life and forsake all other foods. Oh, and in case you’re wondering: the answer is yes, we did do the maths. You’d really have to live that long.
But I digress.
There are plenty of things that Wasabi does really, really well. The design of the restaurant is perfect. A row of simple, stripped back stools and benches provide plenty of space for people to eat at. It’s fast and unfussy, you simply pick up a box or two of your choice then head to the till to pay. That means, of course, that it’s difficult to talk about service. The Wasabi team is focused on prepping food and checking out at the till, rather than asking you whether you’re having a good dinner. In my case, the tattooed woman at the counter gave me a look that said: ‘Blimey, you’re greedy, you really going to eat all that?’
Yes. And yes. For Wasabi gives you the chance to graze an extensive menu of snacks, starters, mains, desserts and drinks. #WinningAtEating.
The snacks were tiny sriracha peas that came in mini 10g pouches. Two swift mouthfuls and they were gone. But 35p well spent and deliciously hot, piquant, chilli-esque flavour to crunch through. Good job, Pea Man. But please make the pouches bigger.
The starters were a hand-rolled prawn/sushi number and a chicken gyoza. They fell a little flat. For the trouble with Wasabi – and it’s a problem that’s impossible to surmount in a walk-in, pick-up, eat-out joint – is that the hot food is pre-cooked then kept warm until the next customer arrives. Nothing’s cooked to order. So the batter on the gyoza felt as limp and grey as a wet weekend in Skegness. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, it probably wouldn’t find its way to the top of your list of Must Visit Places Before I Die. Poor old Skeggy. Poor old Gyoza. The prawn roll was similar: close, but no cigar. The prawn had been pre-cooked, cooled, then wrapped with a bundle of cone-shaped rice. A sheet of dried seaweed and sachet of soy came alongside, allowing me to unwrap, roll, season and eat. The concept was great. But the prawn was cold. And clever as the concept was, it would have been better freshly cooked and hot.
My main was a sashimi set, comprising mixed leaves, edamame beans, a cherry tomato and wakame alongside four slices of salmon, two slices of tuna and a Japanese dressing, soy sauce and wasabi. It was mostly fine. The edamame beans were off-the-scale brilliant: freshly podded and plentifully supplied. The wakame was pretty good, the mixed leaves underwhelming and the cherry tomato nothing to write home about. Sashimi is, of course, all about the fish and both were pretty good. The salmon was a little fatty, in truth: the farmer had obviously been feeding the pink-fleshed beast a little too much, but it was palatable. The dressings were reasonable, the Japanese being the best of the bunch, while the wasabi was a fiery as a night-in with an ex-wife who’s drunk the last of the Prosecco and has broken a heel after getting it stuck in the gutter. I wasn’t sure why they’d left out the pickled ginger – soy, wasabi and pickled ginger are the holy grail of accompaniments and the set felt like a party where the guest of honour had failed to show. Still, the fish was as good.
Desserts were forgettable. Dorayaki Custard pancakes were two Scotch pancakes with a custard cream layer sandwiched between. The flavours were nice but they were too stodgy to be taken seriously. Japanese food is as light as a peregrine falcon’s downy feather. The Pepero Almond biscuits were similarly odd. Long, thin biscuit sticks had been coated in chocolate and crumbed almonds. The chocolate was pleasant, the biscuit bland.
The fat lady – and the fat customer – was singing. £23.18 for a mahooooosive lunch where I’d tried and tested everything on the racks – for your delectation, of course, and in the interests of research. The scores on the doors were simple: Concept brilliant, cold stuff really good, hot stuff not so hot.