All that glitters is not gold.
Update June 2013 – this restaurant has now closed.
There’s no shortage of expensive Japanese restaurants in London and Wabi is one of the latest. This offshoot of the Horsham original is located on the eastern side of Kingsway next to a branch of Pitcher and Piano – don’t try to navigate logically by the door numbers as I foolishly did. Kingsway’s confusing door numbering defies such bourgeois convention.
With the possible exception of the water feature suspended over the stairwell leading to the basement dining room, Wabi is only attractive in a generically glossy kind of way. The clinical lack of atmosphere is something I would expect from a City restaurant (Baron Greenback would therefore probably love it).
I didn’t have the company of any of my dining companions and I sorely missed them by the end of the evening. Overhearing the endless stream of witless prattle from the neighbouring table made me want to cry into my watery virgin bloody mary. ‘Do you have Dim Sum?’ ‘Do you have any tuna tempura?’ ‘Is there pork in yellowtail sashimi?’ Of course none of this was the restaurant’s fault, but one of my overriding memories of my dinner at Wabi was of my ears bleeding in despair as I restrained myself from using my chopsticks as a blunt-force weapon.
Credit has to be given to the staff for not giggling uncontrollably when faced with such an unthinking, unrelenting barrage of dim wittery. Although a little suffocating in their overattentiveness, the staff were generally friendly and warm, although service slowed down dramatically as the dining room filled up as the night went on.
I started off with with the eel tempura which turned out to be a severe disappointment. The batter was crisp, but also rather oily and bland. The eel inside was bitty, lacking both taste and texture. Only the coarse sea salt and the sweet and salty dipping sauce made this dish bearable.
I really like wagyu beef and I adore foie gras, but my suspicions about the kitchen’s sensibilities are immediately raised if they pop up on the menu too often or are inadvisedly mashed together. Sadly, the wagyu and foie gras gyoza confirmed my fears. The thin skins contained some relatively buttery foie gras, but the heavily minced wagyu meant the beef was wasted – the lack of both texture and taste meant it might as well not have been there. The accompanying peanut and sesame seed dipping sauce was thin, resembled a gussied up version of satay sauce and overpowered the taste of the foie gras. A severely misguided dish.
After the staggering cock-ups of the the eel tempura and the gyoza, I expected further disappointments but the barbecue pork belly buns turned out to be the highlight of the evening. The smoky, charred, caramelised flavour of the meat was enhanced by the oozing layer of fat, while the cucumber and ginger garnish provided a refreshing counterpoint. The nutty and salty dressing provided another level of flavour, while the soft, fluffy rice flour buns held everything together nicely. This might be glorified street food, but that doesn’t matter for what was easily the best dish of the evening.
The sushi and sashimi parts of the menu at Wabi are both divided into traditional and contemporary sections, although even the ‘traditional’ nigiri rolls can be quite unusual. I ordered some traditional and contemporary sushi and sashimi, but what the menu doesn’t tell you is the number of pieces you get in each serving – just one and a rather small one at that.
The abalone nigiri is almost certainly steamed rather than raw and has a smooth, silky texture that’s very pleasing. Unsurprisingly, given the very high price of abalone, the slice is small and the entire roll can be finished in the blink of an eye.
The otoro tuna nigiri used wonderfully buttery, fatty fish which had a slight chewy edge to it. It’s not quite as soft and flavoursome as the special ‘neck’ cut of tuna occasionally available at Dinings, but it’s still very good.
The razor clam sashimi has an unusual appearance with the slices of mollusc, almost certainly cooked rather than raw, organised into a pile on top of a small fruit crisp. The fruit crisp adds little, but there’s no mistaking the distinct flavour of the fresh razor clams. They’re slightly chewy, which only adds to the pleasure. The portion is even smaller than that of the abalone nigiri though – eat too quickly and you’ll miss all the action.
The scallop nigiri sushi was topped with a fruity, slightly acidic dressing and some black specks which might have been truffles – it was hard to tell since they were so small. Neither could do much to compensate for the thin, bland, forgettable scallop though.
Even after all of that I was still feeling famished so I ordered two desserts rather than just one. The first dessert was Wabi’s take on a classic Japanese dessert – chestnut dorayaki. Here a sweet chestnut paste and some boozy jelly was sandwiched between two rather unremarkable pancakes. Served alongside it was an icy vanilla and salted caramel ice cream, but the muted flavours and large ice crystals were unimpressive. At best, this dessert was a mixed bag.
The second dessert was an attempt at a far more inventive dish which had been quirkily designed to look like a Japanese rock garden, although the whimsy will be lost on anyone unfamiliar with Japanese rock gardens (this includes myself). The raked gravel ‘ocean’ was actually made out of sugar, the moss-covered rock on the right was actually a green tea sponge paired with a crunchy nut-based Halva-like crackling. The mountain on the left was actually a teetering pile of white chocolate, raspberry sorbet and yuzu citrus blobs and more green tea sponge. A blob of beetroot syrup in the middle represents the futility of my existence (or something).
Despite (or because of) this torturously overcomplicated construction, this dessert was a mess of clashing flavours and textures that didn’t really mesh together to form a coherent whole. In attempting to make a clever visual gag, the kitchen forgot about making a dessert.
As long-time readers of this blog will know, I’m far from adverse to paying a lot for a meal but the £90 I spent on dinner at Wabi was just wasted. Although some startlingly fresh, high quality fish is used in the sushi and sashimi, the portion sizes are miserly. Meanwhile, my desserts were hilariously ill-conceived and the less said about some of the deliriously bad hot savoury dishes the better. In a city with exceptionally high-quality Japanese restaurants such as Dinings, Wabi isn’t just bad, it’s bad value and more than a little insulting. If the kitchen doesn’t rethink the menu, I’ll be surprised if Wabi lasts a year.
Address: 36-38 Kingsway, London WC2B 6EY
Phone: 0207 400 5400
Opening Hours: needlessly complicated
Reservations: highly recommended
Total cost for one person including soft drinks: £90 approx.