Wagamama, Coventry

Cathedral Lanes Shopping Centre: a monument to changing British consumer habits. Originally conceived in the early ’90s as a site for smaller retail units and boutiques, the only shops left here now are outdoor specialists Black’s (which is closing down), crowd-pleasing Wilko’s (which along with the Pound Shop and the 99p Shop, fulfils the role of Woolworth’s de nos jours) and some place for gamers.

The under-occupation isn’t new; even in its 1990s heyday, with its imposing but clunky architecture (think motte-and-bailey meets multiplex cinema – in Legoland) and dismal atrium, Cathedral Lanes was always a bit unloved. Probably the problem was partly down to Coventry itself: it’s just not your boutique-y kind of town. Even here though, lost eddies, nuzzling round street corners, sometimes ruffle the discarded styrofoam. Feeble? Yes; but winds of change, nonetheless.

We’ve reached peak stuff. We’ve fallen out of love with material possessions. Despairing of the unaffordability of home ownership, Generation Rent have shrugged, said ‘sod it’, and switched from spending their disposable income on things to spending it on experiences – such as eating out. And so Cathedral Lanes has been reborn – as modern, plate glassed ‘restaurant quarter’. A trio of mid-market chains – Cosy Club, Las Iguanas and Wagamama – have set up shop so far.

Wagamama, on a slack August lunchtime, is populated but sparsely. Taking pity on my solitary state, the waitress seats me not at one of the large refectory-style tables for which this chain is known, but at a smaller table at the back. Perhaps she hopes that, in lieu of conversation, I can interest myself in surveying the restaurant in its grandeur. And I do.

It’s an enormous open-plan space, reducible in my minimalising eye to two opposing plateaux. The first is the massive tables, all clean lines and blonde wood slabs. The other, inverted, is above my head: orange strip lights, rows and rows of them, housed in slim black boxes hanging to an equal depth from a ceiling equally dark. Between the two: space – empty, apart from a few heads ducking now and then to feed. I find it unexpectedly restful.

‘Restful’ is an adjective that could also describe the food. I have the ‘yasai cha han donburi’, detailed in the menu as ‘stir-fried brown rice with tofu and vegetables, egg, mushrooms, mangetout, sweetcorn and spring onions, served with a side of Japanese pickles’. It’s well-cooked and fresh, and the brown rice, nutty and chewy, makes a pleasant change from the usual white; but overall it’s pretty bland fare.

And (these are just the idle speculations of someone who knows naff-all about it) maybe that’s the point: serve up a basic recipe that no one can dislike, and let diners deploy the on-hand soy sauce and chilli oil to zhuzh it up to suit. Complexity is sacrificed, but for a mass-market place like this is, you can see how such a model could appeal, should anyone ever choose to apply it. Obvious culturally-consonant comparator: performing your own song to a karaoke backing-track.

But, amidst the general snooziness, at least one thing remains alert: the Japanese pickles, with their punchy edge of sesame. Juicy and vituperative, they’re almost visibly writhing in frustration at the separate finger bowl to which they’ve been confined. Is that to prevent them from starting a fight? Or to ease their rejection by British diners of delicate palate?

Because of course what’s on offer at Wagamama is not ‘real’ Japanese food. It’s Japanese food re-packaged for the British market. I also suspect that the appeal of Japanese aesthetics here is less their austere beauty, and more their fit with the fast-throughput model: sitting next to strangers discourages lingering over confidential chats. But for all that, I like this place. In its vastness, I find space for my mind to unspool, and in its and anonymous ambiance, calm. I would go back.

The rather heavy brown rice has left me feeling pleasantly full. Outside, I pass Black’s, frantically trying to divest itself of stock with promises of ‘30% off everything’. I wonder if this will be the next place to convert to a restaurant. Because there’s no sign yet that we’ve reached peak stuff.

Wagamama, SU-03 Cathedral Lanes Shopping Centre, Broadgate, Coventry CV1 1LL (and other locations). Yasai Cha Han Donburi £8.45


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