James Felder has his finger on the pulse of Manhattan dining with this scoopy review of Wakiya. Thanks James for sending it our way!
There’s been a lot of negative buzz around Wakiya. I can honestly say, the place ain’t bad. But I won’t be back.
I went with my mother for a Sunday meal with an open mind. The minute I stepped in the place, something was “off.” It wasn’t until they brought the tap water with a lemon in it, that I knew what it was. Most New Yorkers I know like the taste of our tap water.
This was a place for tourists. Not that it’s a tourist trap. I mean, everyone in it is, by definition, a tourist. I can’t believe that there will ever be any regulars here. Like the mall-aesthetic Buddakan, Wakiya seems to have no connection to the city it is in. It’s as if it was dropped onto the block from outer space, and exists hermetically-sealed from the community.
I couldn’t tell you what causes this, though it’s a tangible sensation. As an example, Mr. Chow’s, while of debatable quality, seems part of the city. If you eat in a Mr. Chow’s in London, LA, or NY, the menu might be the same at each one, but you always feel like you’re in the city hosting it. Robuchon’s in NY has food like nothing else in NY, but you know where you are. Skyway, the Malaysian joint in Chinatown, has few things you would associate with Manhattan, and yet it feels like you’re eating in the heart of the city.
At Wakiya, everyone is a tourist. The chubby Midwestern couple next to you staying in the hotel, the studiously bored Europeans on the other side of you, the tacky loud group in the corner, and the New Yorkers…all tourists. This is a rootless place that folks stop in on the way from one place to another – that eatery you half-remember having dinner at during a slow spot visiting the relatives.
It adds up to a room that feels a little cold, despite the overly cheery and polite waitstaff who greet you in waves as you’re escorted to your seat. The dining room was 1/8th-filled when we started our meal, and about ½-filled by the time we finished. Reservations are hard to come by, so maybe they’re underseating as the kitchen gets up to speed for the official opening.
The kitchen does a respectable job, which is what it’s really all about, right? The menu at Wakiya is made up of cold appetizers, dim sum, main dishes, meats steamed in tea, and noodles & rice. Surprisingly all portions are the same size. They recommend you order 5-6 dishes for two people.
We made no attempt to focus on the signature dishes, like the Fiery Pepper Hunt which has been getting a lot of criticism from the local foodies. We only picked what took our fancy.
They bring out one to two dishes at a time, noodles being served last. First on the table for us were Shrimp & Chive Dumplings and Shanghai Soup Dumplings. On the side were two very subtle, but flavorful sauces: a house soy sauce, and a clear, vegetable-garnished ginger sauce. The filling of the shrimp dumplings were a coarse chop of meat and vegetable that highlighted the textures of both. The soup dumplings were okay, nothing spectacular. Both of the steamed dumplings suffered slightly from gummy skins. On a good day you’d be just as likely to get better dumplings at the oft-maligned Chinatown Brasserie or at your favorite dim sum parlor below Canal.
Then the Peking Duck was brought out. It’s small. Four pancakes, four rectangles of duck skin, a delicate pile of julienne meat, a plate of thinly-sliced spring onions, and a plate of sauce. The skin was warm and delicious, crisp. The duck meat, unfortunately, was cold, bordering on tasteless. Pancakes were transparently thin and made little impact on the overall impression of the dish…which was good, though unmemorable.
We found the waitstaff to be very obliging and friendly. They changed our plates after each entree and even went so far to replace our plates mid-entree if they got too greasy. Weirdly enough, they repeatedly didn’t replace sauce-gooey spoons after we used them, and instead just put them down dirty next to our chopsticks – fine for a cheapy place, not for the prices you pay here. Maybe the staff training needs some polishing.
After the duck came the Smoked Lamb with Black Pepper Sauce. The meat was sliced thin and rare. The black pepper, which was savory, overpowered any smokiness the lamb might have had. It was served with a lackluster garnish of potato, asparagus and broccoli.
Our noodle course began with Shanghainese Fried Noodles. Our waiter described it as “like lo mein” – which proved to be accurate. Ingredients were cooked lightly with care, pork and squid identifiable in the mix. The noodles were exceptional, possibly freshly-made, with a wonderful firmness and browned slightly. The dish, though, was marred by excessive oiliness. Not greasiness — oiliness with the tastes fresh and clean under the unctuousness. Deliberate? Who knows.
The final entrée was the XO Omelet Fried Rice. Conceptually it’s a stand-out. Fried rice is served wrapped in an omelet and dressed with XO sauce. The omelet was a winner, perfectly cooked past the point of being almost too soft. Disappointingly, the rice filling was bland and only the assertive pepperiness of the speckled, translucent sauce saved it.
I remember as a child, desserts in high-end Chinese restaurants in NY were a wasteland of Almond Cookies and Toffee Bananas. Wakiya is not of that tradition. They have great desserts, some of them a little bizarre.
My mom got their signature dessert, Mango Pudding. It comes over a teapot filled with dry ice. Gimmicky, though creamy and refreshing. I’d heard that photography was prohibited at Wakiya. The presentation of this dessert screamed showboating, so I yanked out the camera anyway and pretended to be a wide-eyed and impressed tourist. Enjoy the photo, for what it’s worth.
I had a black sesame ice cream garnished with white chocolate granita and chopped strawberries. Very nice, though the black sesame overpowered the white chocolate. Many of the dishes we had seem to have had that balance-of-tastes issue. An accurate reflection of the chef’s palate, or unevenness on the part of the new kitchen?
There’s been a lot of talk in early foodie posts about cost. We spent about $150. Certainly no bargain, though not crazy for this type of restaurant.
Overall, the meal was satisfying. Probably any individual dish you could find a better example of some place else…and cheaper. And the room itself and restaurant experience is not one worth seeking out. Pleasant enough for what it is.
I assume Wakiya will have a quiet year after the opening madness, and then the Nobu team that runs it will repurpose it as a different restaurant that will better compete with all that the city has to offer.
If you want a special meal, or a new favorite haunt, Wakiya is not what you’re looking for. If expense isn’t an issue, and you want to see what the hubbub is about, check it out. Nothing wrong with being a tourist for a night if you can have desserts like this.