Shop 201, Mid City Arcade
200 Bourke Street
Melbourne, VIC 3000
This was originally going to be a blog post about Lebanese food, but less than 2 hours before dinner, Chris and I ruined our appetites with an unreasonably large serve of onion rings. In light of that new and unfortunate development, Japanese food seemed like a much smarter choice than kofta and kebab.
I’d previously seen posters advertising for Wagaya whilst hanging around outside of Sushi Hotaru, waiting for our number to be called. However it wasn’t until it started gaining traction in the blogosphere that I really looked into it. As it turns out, Wagaya is a sister restaurant of Sushi Hotaru located one and two floors up. Yes – this brand new izakaya is sprawled over a massive two levels, its sleek, woody darkness interrupted by sprays of hot pink cherry blossom. There are some communal tables around the bar, but most of the seating comes in the form of private oriental booths. There are also karaoke rooms available if you’re musically (or not so musically) inclined. It is hugely impressive for what is essentially the everyman’s izakaya.
The menu selection, like the restaurant itself, is bogglingly enormous. The menu is full-colour, fully illustrated, and spans over an entire colour-coded tome. The alcohol is just as plentiful as the food, whether it’s colourful (and cheap) cocktails, traditional liqueurs, or mocktails and soft drinks you were after. Thankfully all ordering is done via touch screen, which saves everyone from the inevitable drama of ordering from a 20 page picture menu in dimly lit booths.
Chris wanted a drink, and considering that the Diamond ($4; normally $5.9) was featured on the happy hour menu, we decided to give that a go. Though nothing more than tonic water and lemonade, it was nevertheless refreshing. Plus who can say no to a bright pink novelty swizzle stick?
Also on the happy hour menu was the Salmon Sashimi ($6; normally $8, 5pcs), which were plump and fatty, and cut generously if a little messily. Definitely worth getting if you’re visiting between 5-7pm, Thursday to Sunday.
Though not something I would normally order, enough people have raved about the Teriyaki Tofu ($6.6) to pique my interest. The cubes of tofu, battered in stretchy potato flour, were as tender as egg whites. They were coated in a sweet, sticky glaze, and came to the table still sizzling. The generous scoop of scallions on top completed the dish. Though I wouldn’t consider it rave-worthy, it is definitely one of the better ways to have tofu.
What’s an izakaya without a generous selection of skewers? I ordered a serve of my all-time favourite, the Ox Tongue Skewer ($7.7, 2pcs). Unlike most places, the ox tongue here was thickly sliced, resulting in a smoky, crispy exterior and a satisfying chewiness to the middle. It was a little under-salted, but when we dipped it into the teriyaki sauce that came with the tofu, it was absolutely perfect.
Throughout the night, Chris’ eyes kept wandering back to the Rice Cake Curry Gratin ($8.5), so in the end we ordered it just to sate his curiosity. It was exactly what it sounded like – chewy rounds of rice cake, baked in a Japanese beef curry sauce and a cheesy crust. Once you get over the horror of what you’re eating, it really is very delicious.
I wanted more sushi, but didn’t have room left for an entire roll or plate of nigiri; instead, I ordered a Half Rainbow Roll ($6.5, 3pcs), which was purported to contain crab, prawn, and avocado, topped with sliced salmon, tuna, and kingfish. And that was exactly what I got… except it was covered with a revolting amount of mayo that was definitely not shown in the picture. Worse still, it wasn’t even delicious Kewpie mayo – just regular mayo! I couldn’t for the life of me tell you how the sushi was, as I could barely taste it over the mayo, even after scraping the majority of it off.
See? NOT in the picture.
We finished off our meal with a serve of Creme Brulee and Vanilla Ice Cream ($8), which turned out to be very lacklustre. The serving was small, the custard a bit gritty, and the ice cream had a rather artificial vanilla flavouring to it. Damn Chris for not wanting the green tea cheesecake – we were in an Asian restaurant for goodness’ sake!
Wagaya has some hits and has some misses. Hits include the wildly varied menu that’s bound to have something for everyone, and the gorgeous ambience that caters for anything from date night to a work function. The food (and in some cases, the portion sizes) is the only real downside. As Chris succinctly put it, the food is a jack of all trades, but master of none. One thing that really bothered me was how limited the sushi selection was, especially given their affiliation and close proximity to Sushi Hotaru. Would I recommend Wagaya? Yes, as long as you keep some of your expectations back at home.