Editor's note: Wabi folded in June 2013, after just eight months in operation. The notes below are of historical interest only..
Wabi is a smart basement restaurant that seems clearly aimed at the Nobu crowd. This would not be a coincidence as the head chef, Scott Hallsworth, was formerly head chef at Nobu London before cooking in Bahrain and Dubai with the Mirai restaurant group. Wabi in Holborn opened in November 2012, but the first Wabi actually opened in 2010 in the shining metropolis of, er, Horsham in West Sussex. This market town of 55,000 is not normally associated with the glitzy jet set that frequent this kind of place. Central London is a more obvious location for a swanky Japanese restaurant, albeit a basement just up from the Peacock theatre rather than the Mayfair locations normally favoured by such establishments.
The room is certainly very smart, with a sushi bar at the far end and 100 seats in the main dining area. The menu is not classical Japanese, so alongside prawn tempura there are dishes such as lobster and chips with yuzu, and desserts such as tiramisu. There are a lengthy set of menu choices, with extensive a la carte choices through to a kaiseki menu at £75; there is even a vegetarian version of the kaiseki menu, something that you would be unlikely to see in Japan, where diners who state that they do not eat meat are met with baffled incomprehension, followed by questions such as “OK, no meat, but is foie gras all right?”.
The short wine list had choices such as Groot Sauvignon Blanc 2011 at £39.50 for a wine that you can find in the high street for £14, Te Whare Ra 2011 Riesling at £47 for a wine that retails at £20, and Far Niente Chardonnay 2010 at £116 for a wine that will set you back £42 in a shop.
Miso soup had a pleasant stock flavoured with enoki mushrooms (13/20). Scallop with foie gras was an unusual pairing, augmented by a little chilli and a crispy pumpkin garnish. Mixing something that should be inherently sweet (scallop) with something as rich as foie gras is not that promising an idea, but the chilli helped cut through the richness, and the texture contrast of the fried pumpkin shreds was a sensible notion. The main problem was that the scallop itself, though cooked properly, was flabby and rather tasteless, so the dish did not fulfill its potential (13/20). Tempura of prawns was served with little red onion slices and a piquant sauce, which went well. However the batter itself was crude and thick compared to a specialist tempura restaurant in Japan (13/20).
A bento box was prettily presented. What is marketed as Chilean sea bass is actually Patagonian toothfish, roasted here with kombu and properly cooked but lacking in flavour. Duck gyoza had nice duck flavor but was a rather soggy dumpling. Chicken katsu sandwich had crisp, pleasant chicken, and pork and vegetable skewers were fine. Sashimi of salmon and tuna was tasteless, the quite evidently akami (lean) tuna introduced by the waiter as the more expensive otoro cut, which it was patently not. Wasabi was the coloured horseradish from a jar, a million miles away in flavour from the sublime taste of freshly grated wasabi root. This was all between 12/20 and 13/20 level.
The bill came to £34.88 with tap water to drink. The waitress was very pleasant, and certainly this is a smart setting, with quite prettily presented food. The trouble is that Japanese food is, at its heart, a celebration of high quality, seasonal ingredients, and Wabi is serving up quite pretty dishes using very ordinary ingredients. Having just returned from Japan a few days ago, the difference in ingredient standard was striking to me. In Tokyo even quite modest restaurants can serve ultra-fresh and high-grade produce. Wabi is a decent enough restaurant, but falls short of offering an authentic Japanese dining experience.