Friday, May 27, 2011

How To Avoid a Case of Puzzle Butt ..

... when eating at Wagaya...

I coined the term "puzzle butt" when I was a teenager. It referred to the spasm that occurs after prolonged clenching of the buttocks while leaning over a large (mostly 1000 piece) jigsaw puzzle, trying to piece it together.

In the case of Wagaya, that much reviewed, touch-screen ordering, fast action Japanese diner on the fringe of Chinatown, it was a one buttock clench.

You might be asking what does puzzle butt have do with eating out? Well, when you're sitting in one of their booths, the screen is located perpendicular to you, the diner. So there is no other way to touch the screen than to lean across thus causing the clench. It wouldn't be so bad if the menu wasn't so extensive but it is.
Thirteen buttons across the top lead to the first of mostly 2, sometimes 3 sub-menus all containing unique offerings for each category. The best thing is, you don't have to decide the entire meal right at the beginning. If you arrive hungry and want an immediate starter, go for something recognisable, say Edamame.
While some restaurants serve these warm, these were served cold but they were crisp, sweet and not too salty. 

If you're not starving, you can take the time to peruse the menu but be warned, you may need an hour or so:
There are 3 separate drinks categories: Beer & Wine, Cocktails (with a different one for each sign of the zodiac) and Sake & Schochu plus a single sweets menu which encompasses Non-Alchoholic Drinks and Desserts. (You even order glasses of water from this menu!)

The savoury choices are divided helpfully into Nibbles & Salad, Grilled Dishes, Hot Pot Courses, Sushi & Sashimi, Rice and Noodles, Vegetarian and and the tantalising New Menu Food but my favourite had to be "Deep Fried Dishes".

Hence my next choice:
Fried Salmon Skin. An acquired taste, it is of course the Asian version of "waste not, want not" - deep fry it and they will come! They were a little chewier than I had anticipated but lightly seasoned and I would have finished the last one but just didn't have the space. What followed however were exactly as I imagined:

Called Kundron Chips, it's a dish of deep fried Lotus Root dribbled with a sticky sweet sauce, a tad smaller than their picture but crispy and very moreish.
Most reviewers mention the speed with which the food arrives upon ordering. If you know this, it's great, because you don't order until you're ready to eat and then before you know it, your food is on the table. I suspect that there is a fair amount of pre-cooking which enables this haste but this can lead to one of the downsides - overdone-ness.

Unable to choose a single yakitori dish from the number on offer, we order a variety plate.
Chicken, Salmon, Prawn and Ox Tongue. All bar the Salmon were a little tough, specially the Ox Tongue but then I believe this is its primary trait and some people like it enough to serve it. It brings new meaning to "chewing the cud"!

Another acquired taste:

Eel Cheese Spring Roll. I'm not sure why I ordered this because I've never liked eel any other time I've accidentally eaten it. After eating this, I still don't like eel but I also didn't think there was any cheese in it. I saw and tasted what appeared to be enoki mushrooms (or someone substituted that tasteless children's cheese that breaks into strings...). The eel had a very earthy flavour, thankfully the enoki weren't particularly mushroomy otherwise the whole thing might have been intolerable. Let's just call this a one-off experiment.

With the current restaurant love affair with Wagyu, it was never going to be a hard decision to order one of these:

Wagyu Beef Skewers. Served with a wedge of lemon but otherwise unadulterated, it came straight off the grill. If there's one thing this proves, Wagyu is not the perfect meat, it still needs a good chef to cook it well to get the benefit of the additional fat. Cut into bite-sized pieces and turned over a hibachi grill (I'm imagining this of course, I haven't been out to the kitchen), is it any wonder that it tastes no better than an ordinary cut of beef? Thankfully, we are not paying the high prices of most of the restaurants serving Wagyu. The majority of the dishes on offer are $10-15 with only Lobster Karaage, at $55, the anomaly; so you can afford to make some mistakes.
We head for the classics:

Sashimi Salmon. While not the worst salmon I have ever eaten, it also wasn't the leave-you-in-awe, melt-in-the-mouth best. It was served only with a small knob of wasabi and no soy to dip into. Perhaps we had to order that separately but obviously missed that button ...

Another classic:

Takoyaki. You can have it without the melted cheese or with. We elected with. I've never understood the rave about this traditional street food. In my simple analysis, it's like a fish ball albeit less chewy and with octopus. The magic is really in the making but the texture and taste were, to me, passe.

And so we come to the utter highlights of our meal:

Salmon & Scallop Box Sushi. A rectangular sushi with the traditional rice and seaweed arranged in an S shape then topped with a whole sashimi scallop and salmon both lightly seared with a blowtorch, drizzled with mayonnaise and sprinkled with kingfish roe. Absolutely divine, I could not fault this, the flavours were fresh, the scallop didn't feel raw but it was sweetly melty and the salmon was perfectly done.

After so much protein, we had to sample the carbs:
 Scallop and Garlic Fried Rice. 2 out of the 3 of us loved this. Granted the scallops were a little tough as they will be when you don't cook them separately from the rice but they were no worse than a piece of meat and the flavour of the rice was outstanding. Unlike the menu item, the rice was served in a heated bowl like the Korean BBQ restaurants do, creating a delicious crispy crust (sigh, back to fried...).

More carbs:
Tempura Udon. You might think that it would be easy to get this dish right but having eaten this standard on more occasions than I can remember, it's not a given. The stock has to be tasty, not too salty, nor too sweet, the kombu must be plentiful but not over-dominant, the udon al dente with just the right sprinkling of delicately sliced spring onions. Then the tempura of course must be crisp and not greasy and the contents should be well-cooked and hot and hold its shape after you've bitten into it.  Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick!

And that truly was just the tip of the ice berg!

So what to make of this well-patronised establishment? Looking at the decor ....
... all wood panelling and rocky surfaces, with a soaring ceiling and a feature wall with panels of tree trunks, my initial feel is this place deserves to serve a higher quality of food; but that would take away from everything it is - a quirky, unique diner serving decent food quickly. You can snack and leave or linger and keep ordering. You can pace it for the time you have , order and savour one dish at a time or order a heap and sample together. With barely any interaction with the staff, who greet you en masse as you enter and farewell you on departure, and only deliver the orders to your table, you can hardly complain about the service. We need more places like this. But I think the greater Sydney public already know that so unless you go on a quiet night or early in the evening, expect to queue ...
 Wagaya is (fortunately) located in Sydney's Chinatown.


  1. I've only ever been here once. The food was ok, but we felt really rushed to get out because of the time limit on our table :-(

  2. Sorry to hear Maria, perhaps we were there on a quiet night, I hate being given a time limit to my meal too. It's okay if you're heading to a performance but my guess is, given the low prices, they're after quick turnaround and volume. Thanks for reading!

  3. They should issue a big pointer stick to help reduce puzzle butt. Hmm, on the other hand, maybe not - I'd be ordering everything on the menu, otherwise.

  4. Hate the lighting for taking photos, but love the experience. Didn't have a time limit on my table of two and had a lovely evening.

  5. Lol ok now I have learnt a new term, puzzle butt! And I like it! It's been ages since we last ate here but my friends and I had fun with the menu ordering system :)

  6. Eel Cheese Spring Roll?? The poor apprentice chef who had to milk all those eels!

  7. Hi Belle! Yes I realised after I published the blog that I never gave the solution to the question I posed! A very good suggestion! In hindsight, mine would be to take a volume of people and rotate them so that everyone has a go at ordering! :)

    Hi Sara, couldn't agree more about the lighting and glad you have a great time.

    Hi Lorraine, I would definitely go back as there were many dishes I didn't have an opportunity to try. It would be good to know if you did go back whether it was still as good as when you first reviewed it. It was on the basis of yours, Helen's and many other of the bloggers I read that made me want to try it.

    LOL Lobo! I would have phrased it better but that's what it said on the menu! I now have an image in my head that I can't get out! :D

  8. Oh, I'm so distracted from studying - now there's another thing you can get puzzle butt from =P I love wagaya...variety is so much fun.

  9. Know the feeling Chris! Best to stay off the blogs then, it's too easy to spend many hours reading and drooling! Glad to hear that I'm not the only one who suffers so! :)

  10. This place sounds like fun. Good to learn a new term "Puzzle Butt" LOL!

  11. Wagaya is always a great place to go for a cheap and quick meal! mm fried salmon skin & renkon chips are my fav :)