On a warm night at Faneuil Hall, a fellow wearing flashing red and blue lights on his head does yo-yo tricks for tourists in brand - new Sox caps. A violinist wraps up a version of "Hello Dolly," then launches into the plangent opening notes of the theme to "Titanic." And then a man swoops in upon our outdoor table. "Good eeeeeeevening, ladies," he says heartily. Given the setting, we at first mistake him for a street performer, come to juggle or sell us flowers. But no, his name tag reveals that his name is Ofer and he'll be our server tonight.
He's part of the uniformly perky cadre waiting on us at Wagamama, the first US outpost of the popular British noodle chain. A second restaurant will open this summer in Harvard Square. The word "wagamama" is Japanese (it means "selfish" or "willful") and much of the food is ostensibly Asian, but the UK branches -- with their communal tables and not-quite-authentic food -- feel aesthetically closer to London than to Tokyo. And that's their charm.
But here the formula falls victim to the Faneuil Hall Effect: Take any establishment --
"Have you been to Wagamama before?" asks another perky server. This is a popular question with the staff. In this case, it leads into an explanation of how the food is made fresh with each order so it may not all arrive at once but it will get here quickly and side dishes are called side dishes not appetizers because your ramen might come before your edamame , but those edamame will soon follow, not to worry. Wagamama is fast food with a long preamble.
The server IMs our order in to the kitchen. There is a blackboard strip running down the center of our table, and she writes the menu numbers of our dishes on it in chalk, denoting who gets what. (For those eating inside, the numbers are written on paper placemats.) And quicker than a
It's been 10 minutes since we placed our order and everything is already here. It's not stellar: The kare lomen is oily and surprisingly one-note in flavor considering the menu says it's made with lemongrass, coconut milk, shrimp paste, red chilies, ginger, and galangal . The gyoza skins look more like spinach-pie dough, and the sauce the dumplings are served with is too sweet. The edamame are crunchy, and the ginger chicken udon is eh -- if it weren't for the pink strips of pickled ginger, it wouldn't have much taste. But the panko-coated shrimp are perfectly acceptable while hot, the yasai cha han has a pleasant grilled flavor, and the desserts, when we order them, are downright delish. Ginger cheesecake has real ginger flavor (and even contains some ginger fibers), and coconut ice cream with mango sauce is sprinkled with toasted coconut that freezes appealingly on top of the scoops. Also, a glass of "raw juice" -- a blend of carrot, cucumber, tomato, orange, and apple -- is so good and revitalizing it makes us want to buy a juicer.
For this kind of food, I'd rather eat at Ken's Noodle House or in the Porter Exchange building any day; the dishes are much better for somewhat less money. But Wagamama's fare is a step above that at other quick-stop spots in the area. For those who have grown famished languishing in line for a parking sticker at City Hall, for those who work nearby, and for those sporting brand- new Sox caps who are wise enough to fear Cheers, Wagamama is welcome.
Wagamama, Quincy Market Building, Boston, 617-742-9242; wagamama.us. Entrees $7.95-$13.75. Wine $21-$25 per bottle, $6-$8.55 per glass.