I’m a SF Bay Area chowhound in town for a visit. My family of five had dinner last night at Wakiya at the Gramercy Park Hotel. My brother made the reservation after reading NY Times reporter Jennifer Lee’s rave review of Wakiya in Tokyo (link below). We were especially intrigued by the fact that it was being managed by the Nobu team and seemed well positioned to become the Nobu of Chinese cuisine.
A recent transplant to the west coast, I’ve been lucky to have tasted some truly exquisite Chinese food at banquets organized by some SF chowhounds who are unusually knowledgeable about Chinese cuisine. Having experienced the creative heights that Chinese cuisine can reach, I frequently lament the poor reputation of Chinese food in the U.S. and welcomed the possibility that Wakiya could play a role in remedying that perception (yes, it’s Chinese-Japanese, but it’s something).
I’m sad to say, though, that our experience at Wakiya was a disappointment. IMHO, unless the menu changes significantly, this restaurant will do little to promote an understanding of Chinese cuisine as complex and creative.
All of the dishes we ordered were reasonably well-prepared, but nothing we ate stopped us in our tracks and made us say, “This is delicious.” Of our three starters—bang bang chicken, beef salad in yuzu sauce, and shanghai soup dumplings containing lobster and miso soup—the bang bang chicken (thin shreds of chicken with slivers of cucumber in a sesame oil-peppercorn sauce) was the only dish I would order again. Neither the beef salad nor the dumplings had any distinctive flavor.
For our entrees, shared family style, we had the soft shell crab in golden sand, tong tsu sea bass, chin shan scallops, peking duck, sautéed broccoli with Chinese bacon, and the XO omelet fried rice, brought out in that order. Of these, the soft shell crab was my favorite. The crab itself was just all right, but the “golden sand”--Japanese panko breadcrumbs flavored with garlic, bits of red and green bell peppers, and other seasonings--was tasty. The tong tsu (“sugar, vinegar”) sea bass was tender but otherwise ordinary. Same for the peking duck (and the crepes were a bit stiff as if they’d been sitting around). The sauteed broccoli, which also inexplicably included cauliflower, came with four or five sad little squares of Chinese bacon, and the XO fried rice was forgettable.
But the biggest disappointment of the night--and the most expensive entree we ordered at $34--was the chin shan scallops. (We eventually figured out that chin shan, or really, qing xiang, translates to “light aroma”). The server touted it as scallops steamed with oolong tea. We were presented with a large bamboo steamer resting over a hot metal bowl. Our server lifted the lid off the steamer, poured in a small pot of oolong tea, and closed the lid. Two or three minutes later, she returned and removed the lid. What we found inside: four large scallops, each adorned with a strip of red pepper, sitting atop a bed of daikon radish threads. After we each ate our one scallop, we ate the steamed veggies that took up more than half of the steamer--a few carrots and daikon trimmed into hard nuggets, a few fava beans, and some broccoli florets. The dish came with little dipping dishes of Wakiya’s special hot soy sauce, which gave the food its only flavor, as we could detect none of the oolong fragrance in our scallops or veggies. We felt that this dish, especially the pouring of the oolong tea, was really more about the presentation than taste.
For dessert, we shared an afogato with Vietnamese coffee and an order of Wakiya’s signature mango pudding. As with the chin shan scallops, it was primarily about the presentation. The tiny bowl of mango pudding (creamy with chunks of mango) came atop a teapot with three spouts that emitted a “cold lychee steam.” The lychee steam, produced by dry ice, smelled great and, sadly, might have been our favorite part of the entire meal!
Our tab came out to $207 without tip (no alcohol), which wasn’t as exorbitant as we had feared, but given the portion sizes, it’s a terrible value when compared to upscale Chinese food prepared at less trendy restaurants catering to a more Chinese clientele. (I don’t know Manhattan at all; in the Bay Area, I’m thinking of places like Asia Pearl in Richmond and China Village in Albany).
We knew, going into the meal, that part of what we were paying for was the ambiance and the service. The decor, though, struck us as rather unremarkable—lots of black punctuated by curtains of crimson thread separating each table from the aisle. Looking around, we could have been sitting in any generic upscale restaurant in the city. As for the service, it was a mixed bag. Our primary server was friendly and competent, but everyone else seemed to be moving around in a jumble. While taking our order, our server had to interrupt herself to intercede when she noticed a server at another table making a mistake (unlidding a chin shan basket too early). Throughout the evening, she had to instruct others several times on how to serve us our dishes. The awkward service was, perhaps, exacerbated by the restaurant set-up. The tables are placed uncomfortably close to each other, leaving little room for the servers to maneuver; plus, they have to shove past the red thread curtains in order to get at the tables. I know Wakiya hasn’t been open that long, but I would have expected more from the management of Nobu, where we’ve had excellent service.
Looking back at Ms. Lee’s review of a seemingly dazzling Wakiya in Tokyo, I wonder what went wrong in bringing the restaurant to the U.S. (especially given the confluence of talent behind the restaurant). For one, it seems odd that Chef Wakiya is already back in Japan so early in the restaurant’s tenure. Also, the menu on offer in New York seems strikingly different than the menu in Tokyo, which is entirely prix fixe and appears to feature more adventurous dishes like Mochi Rice Wrapped in Pork and Stuffed Whole Sweetfish. (Just looking at the pictures in Ms. Lee’s blog, I also noticed that the signature fiery pepper hunt dish in Tokyo looks nothing like what we saw served at neighboring tables last night). Did they dumb down Wakiya’s offerings to make the menu more palatable to an American audience? Are there any chowhounds out there who’ve eaten at both and can comment on the differences?
Link to NYTimes reporter Jennifer Lee’s review of Wakiya in Tokyo:
Fay Da Bakery
136-18 39th Ave, Queens, NY 11354