Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Wagamama's, Nationwide

After a fairly mixed gluten free dining experience at Jamie's Italian, the following day we were having a much better time at Wagamama's at Heathrow Terminal 5. Obviously buoyed by the excitement of going to Thailand that day (more on that to come!), I tried to remain level-headed enough to write an impartial review.

I've eaten at Wagamama's quite a few times since being gluten free, but lately I think they've made some big improvements, so I thought it was time to put pen to paper. Until recently options were fairly limited, although always tasty. My 'usual' was Chicken Itame, a warming and spicy coconut broth, packed with Asian vegetables, chicken and rice noodles. It's one of the few dishes that was naturally gluten free. In recent times though, the gluten free options seem to have expanded and they seem better equipped to modify dishes.
Lollipop Prawns
The setting at T5 is pretty impressive with huge floor to ceiling glass overlooking the aircraft. We were given a comprehensive allergen menu to look through and the website also has similar dietary filters. We were told that because we had specific dietary requirements the manager would take our order. I guess this is a fairly simple way to ensure consistency in the level of service for those dining with allergens. I did initially go for the chilli salt squid for my starter but was told that that despite the dish not having any gluten containing ingredients it was fried in the same oil as other products rendering it unsuitable for coeliacs. I was impressed with their knowledge and he quickly pointed out some alternatives. Instead I had lollipop prawns which were awesome. Grilled beautifully leaving them sweet and succulent and bathed in flavours of lemongrass, lime and chilli and whetting my appetite for what was to come in Thailand. For my main course they've recently added a new curry. Surendra's chicken curry come's in a rich, thick and spicy green curry sauce with crispy sweet potato straws and perfectly cooked rice. It's a delicious dish and gluten free too.
Surendra's Chicken Curry
I've not had too many dishes adapted but I know they can substitute rice noodles in dishes such as the chilli chicken men. I think if they committed to using gluten free soy sauce throughout the restaurant (it is available for gluten free diners) and had separate fryers for certain dishes they would exponentially increase the number of gluten free dishes. Until then, we'll just have to make do with the delicious ones they have on offer at the moment.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

A return to Jamie's Italian - gluten free hit or miss?

As I've posted before I'm a big fan of Jamie's and I'm particularly enjoying his new Superfood book. You know you're always going to get straightforward recipes packed with flavour and for me I carry that expectation to his restaurants. I originally reviewed Jamie's Italian back in 2011 and thought it got off to a great start. However, a blip in 2013 caused by a diner taking the chain to court left a sour taste in many coeliacs mouths when the chain pulled their gluten free pasta options. Without the pasta option, I remember one visit where I was left eating a sorry looking burger without a bun at an astronomical cost.

Fast forward to autumn 2015 and I was invited back to the Jamie's Italian in Norwich with reassurances that gluten free pasta was back and that the chain had focussed on creating even more gluten free options. The menu on the website was promising, it now had a specific allergen filter and there were certainly more options than I'd noticed previously. Unfortunately, the hard work that's gone into creating the online menu just doesn't seem to translate into their restaurant experience. My server enthusiastically talked about the gluten free pasta options and that they could possibly modify other dishes but that was it. I'm left guessing as to which ones could and couldn't be modified, using my own knowledge of ingredients to try and guess and trying to look on the website to see what I'd found previously. When it came to ordering there even seemed to be a mismatch between the website and what our server thought. I chose the spinach and ricotta croquettes because I thought this was an unusual dish to be gluten free. It's specifically stated as gluten free on the website but my server thought otherwise. Even if it was, she thought it might be fried in the same fryer as other gluten containing produce so either way it was a no go. Not a great start. When it comes to allergens, diners are looking for a seamless experience, anything else leaves you with a constant nervousness which detracts from the excitement of eating out.

Pork scratchings will chilli, fennel and apple sauce
Thankfully when we did agree on some starters they hit the usual flavour highs expected. We ordered the meat plank to share and the quality of the cured meats was the real stand-out. Antipasti is common place on menus up and down the country these days but it's rare that you find places using quality ingredients. Again, disappointingly the Manchego was brought on a cracker which I couldn't eat. When prompted the server offered to bring us some without the cracker but it really shouldn't have needed us to ask. Problems continued when we were informed the slaw on the plank contained gluten in the dressing so I was to avoid this too. We also shared pork scratchings which were some of the best I've ever eaten. Powdered with chilli and fennel and served with an apple sauce they were deliciously moreish.
Cured meat plank
With pasta back on the menu I was determined to give it a try. I went for a fresh crab dish served with capers, chilli, fennel and anchovies. I was pleased to see it come out with a brown pasta (so often the gluten free pasta is the same from chain to chain) but it was sadly overcooked. It was a real shame as the combination of flavours in the sauce and with the crab was spot on. The pasta however, just fell apart on my fork. It hit the flavour expectations of a Jamie inspired dish but the execution was sadly lacking. My wife had the Chicken Cacciatore which again received plaudits for flavour. Beautifully grilled and succulent piece of chicken with a rich sauce full of the heady flavours of Italy. Bizarrely though, the decision to serve it on the garlic bread rather than next to it meant that the bread was a soggy mess by the time you got to it.

Crab with gluten free pasta
Chicken Cacciatore
So an overall mixed experience. The flavours and quality of ingredients give you a lot to get excited about but sadly there's still work to be done for those dining with allergens. With so many competitors getting it right (Cote Brasserie for  mid-market diners, Pizza Express for Italian) it baffles me that with the resources behind Jamie's Italian, it's still not quite hitting the mark.