In the posh neighbourhood of Fort, South Mumbai, a pink neon sign reading ‘Wakai’ beckons you to come closer. Black-and-white patterned steps lead up to the contemporary Japanese restaurant started by Shardul Singh Bayas, Sameer Tirani and Head Chef Parvez Khan.
Opened on October 13, the menu is the brainchild of 34-year-old Khan who was the head chef at Wasabi by Morimoto at Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Having worked at Wasabi for 15 years, he honed his skills under Chef Masaharu Morimoto himself.
Fresh and young
Wakai means fresh and young, “I think it went with the whole idea of coming out with something new and different,” says Chef Parvez Khan. As the team went through various name ideas, the word Wakai just stuck. The restaurant was first discussed in the month of January, and soon after, the country went into lockdown. Chef Khan only resumed work on the project by mid-April, and started his food trials in July, which went on for three months. The menu at Wakai has around 110-120 dishes, and an equal division of vegetarian and non-vegetarian items on the menu. Non-traditional sections like gyoza and grills have been added as well.His vision for Wakai is represented in the menu with unusual dishes such as Wasabi Cornettos, Alligator Maki, as well as in the surprising décor of the space.
Eschewing the usual modern clean lines of Asian restaurants in the city, Wakai goes for a more unique look and feel. The restaurant has been designed by Rupin Suchak, the celebrity set designer, who has created quirky sets for Dharma productions, Red Chillies, Excel Entertainment, as well as celebrity homes and offices for Alia Bhatt, Sonakshi Sinha, and Ranveer Singh’s vanity van. This is Suchak’s first F&B project, and he adds a touch of drama with the detailed décor that seems to take one through the streets of Japan.
Chef Khan who trained in Japan around eight years ago, had the image of a small ramen shop he encountered, in his mind while planning Wakai. He showed Suchak some reference images, and that was that; Suchak recreated Roppongi, the party area of Tokyo in an old Bombay building.
Large windows called shoji let in natural light, typical Japanese umbrellas form a canopy at the entrance and hand-painted black cat, anime character, street art style murals offer photo opportunities in every corner. The mezzanine level of the space houses a live sushi bar on one end, and a TV showing Manga (comics or graphic novels originating from Japan), Dragon Ball Z and One-Punch Man on the other. Even the outdoor smoking area matches the interior décor, painted water tanks and more neon lights, lend the area and cosy and comfortable feel.
An experience to remember
As my dinner partner and I sit at our table, our eyes are immediately drawn to the live sushi bar, where sushi chef, Chef Happy is preparing our maki roll for the night. After a quick chat with the staff, we are relocated to a spot at the bar itself, so we can watch Chef Happy work his magic, up close. Fried shrimp arrives hot from the kitchen, and Chef immediately gets to work, preparing a plate of wasabi, and pickled ginger first. He moves on to spreading sushi rice over a sheet of nori, then placing the shrimp over the sheet, on a bed of house made spicy mayonnaise, then rolling all the ingredients deftly. The pieces are then topped with tuna tartare and a spicy tomato chilli paste and chopped scallions to create Wakai’s Caterpillar shrimp maki roll. The best part though, was the fresh wasabi root that Chef Happy ground up right in front of us, using a small wooden grater. This frothy as-fresh-as-can-be wasabi tasted much sweeter as compared to its regular counterpart. The sushi itself was perfectly prepared, and as per the Chef’s recommendation we had it without soy. The creaminess from the chopped tartare and various sauces ensured a pop of flavours, without being dry, even sans soy.
Sitting in front of Chef Happy proved to be a valuable lesson for me as well. As I reached for my fork, woefully telling Chef about my inadequacy with chopsticks, he picked up his pair, and launched into a much-needed Chopsticks 101 class. I used my new-found skills to pick up a piece of Chicken Karage, quite successfully, I might add. The chicken was doused in a spicy negi sauce that had hints of sweet and sour as well. Next, we tried the Cornettos, the non-vegetarian version was filled with Hamachi, while the vegetarian was made with creamy avocados. Both fillings were pressed into charcoal waffle cones, that were, in fact, slightly sweet, but the stuffing was generous enough to counteract it. A multi-colour rainbow of hues arrived on the table, in the form of gyoza. Each piece was filled with a different ingredient and wrapped in naturally coloured dough. we tried the lamb, chicken, prawn and mushroom gyoza, but the standout favourite was the truffle edamame one.
Moving onto the main course, we opted for the Seabass Robatoyaki from the Grill section of the menu. My dinner partner, while not usually a fan of fish, was quick to scarf down a couple of pieces. The seabass was cooked to perfection, falling apart with a nudge from a fork, and it was covered in a delicate sweet and peppery crust.
The produce is sourced locally, as well as from Japan’s Toyosu Market, ensuring high-quality ingredients. The fish was accompanied by an extremely well-made bowl of garlic fried rice, which paired with the flavours of the grilled seabass like a match made in heaven.
For the dessert portion of the evening, we went with Chef Khan’s recommendation and ate the Bird’s Eye chili chocolate brownie, which was the definition of decadent. A hot 70 per cent dark chocolate brownie, was topped with cold gold medal ice cream, a vanilla and chocolate combination with a touch of gold leaf. The push-and-pull of the chilli and chocolate made this a dessert of contrasts, and the spice makes you go back in for sweet bite. The second dessert was my personal favourite, the Kokonattsu Tortino. The light and fluffy coconut cake was drenched in a citrus sauce, surrounded by seasonal fruits, like blueberry, raspberry, lingonberry, kiwi, and topped with a tender coconut ice cream, making it look as pretty as a picture.
Unfortunately, we visited Wakai on a dry day, and could not sample the alcohol section of the menu. However, Chef Khan did arrange for the mocktail version of the signature Citrus Wasabi Gin and Tonic to be served, which had a definite hit of wasabi balanced by the cool citrus. The cocktail menu has been curated by popular mixologist Shatbi Basu, and there is no doubt I will be back to try the adult version of all the drinks.
Where: 24 A, Raja Bahadur Mansion, Mumbai Samachar Marg, Fort, Mumbai- 400023