THERE WAS a certain outpouring of regret when Fin closed earlier this year, adding a level of entendre to its name. The inventive (and excellent) seafood spot on SE Hawthorne got some great reviews, and a lot of love, but too much of it seemed to be only in retrospect. Like when some poor artist offs himself, and suddenly everyone's a lifelong fan. If people cared so much, the place probably wouldn't have closed after six months. Still, the flood of affection for chef Trent Pierce—along with some well-publicized guest brunches at St. Jack—created exactly the kind of buzz you want with a new restaurant on the horizon. Wafu announced its preview dinners, and almost immediately had to add two additional dates.
But enthusiasm doesn't pay the rent, and it's not always easy to fill seats with small, challenging dishes—even if they are immaculately prepared. Pierce was wise this time to build Wafu around a more accessible staple at a lower price point, and then fill out the menu with the kind of small plates he does so well. Wafu is a "noodle bar" specializing in ramen (the name translates as "Japanese style"). A big filling meal in the $10-12 range will get people in the door and ordering drinks, which is where most restaurants make their money.
But the left-hand side of the menu, as well as an ambitious specials board, is freed up for Pierce to serve his raw-fish preparations—the hand rolls and carpaccios and ceviches that Fin fans so adored—and izakaya-style dishes.
And the restaurant has that izakaya feel—low lighting from paper lanterns, a lot of concrete surfaces and wood accents, a collaged wall of Japanese movie posters. There's a handful of two-tops up front, then a long, high communal table that bisects much of the seating area. There are stools at the bar, as well as around the open kitchen, and in the very back, there's a banquet room where they play silent samurai movies on one of the walls.
As far as noodles go, you have three options. The Wafu ramen ($9) has a broth made from pork and chicken stock, and is topped with mustard greens, scallions, kamaboko (that cured, pureed whitefish they form into a loaf then thinly slice), and chicken oil. The broth has a different flavor than I'm used to—it's a little bit smokier and seems to lean pretty heavily on that chicken oil—but it's quite pleasant, and a couple spoonfuls of their Dragon Sauce add a nice spice. You can add a generous slab of pork belly ($3), a slow poached egg ($1), or a confit chicken leg ($2). All are worth it, depending what you're in the mood for, though the chicken leg was a tad unwieldy to pick apart with chopsticks.
Patrick Schultz (formerly of Carlyle and Sel Gris) makes the noodles in house, and they've got a nice springy texture to them. And if the noodles are your thing, you can add an extra serving to your ramen for $2 more.
The vegan ramen ($12) wasn't quite as exciting for me, not because its miso broth wasn't rich and flavorful (it was), but because they seemed to skimp a bit on the tofu and king trumpet mushrooms. I thought more could be done to add some complexity and brightness to the dish.
New to me was abura soba ramen ($12), a brothless (or nearly so) dish piled with pork belly, kimchee, fried egg, and chili oil. While on a cold day I'd still opt for the standard Wafu ramen, this could easily find a place in my rotation.
My favorite of the small plates was the barbequed octopus ($9), which comes served in a shallow dish of dashi, wakame oil, daikon, and pureed ginger. I've become accustomed to rubbery octopus, but Wafu's has consistent texture and it takes on the flavor of its accouterments well.
The roasted crab hand roll ($5) is wrapped in soy paper with yuzu tobiko, sprouts, and (maybe a bit too much) nuoc cham mayo, which gives the roll a tangy, garlicky flavor. The crab, unsurprisingly, is excellent.
One of the strangest—but no less wonderful—dishes I've had was Wafu's rendition of a "hot pocket" ($7). Three marinated tofu pouches are filled with melted fontina cheese and speck. They're savory and delicious. I'm looking forward to going back for the lamb tongue, miso creamed kale, and chicken wings.
I mentioned alcohol margins earlier, and Pierce & Co. appear to have realized that the bar is no place to skimp. They have a huge whiskey selection (including some less common Japanese brands), and an impressive sake list. Budget drinkers can opt for the Hakutsuru Junmai on draft ($4 for a small/ $7 for a large), which I've certainly never seen before.
Lack of customers doesn't seem to be a problem this time around—it's been pretty-well full every time I've been in. It's nice to see a talented chef please the crowds without losing the touch that made him something of a critics' darling.