Japanese food has more to offer than just sushi, but you wouldn’t know it from many restaurant menus. Lucky for Providence, Johnson & Wales graduates Kazu Kondo and X Premwat have already proved this in their eight-year-old yakitori and shabu shabu restaurant on Pontiac Avenue, Ebisu. Even luckier, they have taken their experience to open (along with partner Nicholas Mazonowicz) upper Hope Street’s new Wara Wara.
With a funky, colorful interior and a menu to match, Wara Wara has a contagious energy. It’s no surprise that local artist Kyla Coburn did the interior – you’ve probably seen her work in some of Providence’s most fetching restaurants and bars including the art nouveau gem Loie Fuller. Bright red accents and thickly lacquered tables set off the brilliant turquoise floor. If you happen to sit near the restaurant-bar divider, you can ogle the toy collection, including tin robots and small but menacing Godzillas.
Though I usually think of it as a brunch instead of dinner drink, the Kimchee Bloody Mary ($8), a fairly standard bloody with the twist of blended house Kimchee, was a good start. My husband had the Open Kimono ($10), one of several specialty martinis made with vodka, lychee liqueur and pickled ginger.
With a few exceptions such as ramen, this menu is designed for sharing. We started with a little taste of Hijiki ($6), a thin, near-black seaweed mixed with carrot, slices of shiitake and bean curd. We almost passed on the Crispy Brussels Sprouts ($7) because we’ve had so many versions of this dish, but I’m glad we put in an order. The intense lemony crispness and the umami note lent by fish sauce made this a standout dish.
The enticing Japanese Mushroom Medley ($8) special was a creative combination of thin round-capped mushrooms, wild leeks, chopped shishito peppers and melted manchego cheese. The cheese and mushrooms had a nuttiness nicely offset by the greener ingredients.
The Yellowtail Crudo ($10) dressed the raw fish simply with sesame oil, sliced radish and arugula, perhaps overshadowed by some of the louder flavors of earlier dishes. If you’re adventurous, I recommend the Hamachi Kama ($14), a broiled yellowtail collar with yuzu pepper. This part of the fish may not be pretty, but it’s known for its tenderness and rich taste. Picking the meat off the bone can be a bit of work, but once you dip your first bite in citrus ponzu and grated radish, you’ll agree it’s worth the effort.
We loved the extensive Hitachino Nest beer selection (this impressive beer has the cutest wide-eyed owl logo). I had the Red Rice ($10) and my husband, the XH ($10), a strong Belgian-style Brown ale aged in distilled sake (shochu) barrels.
The Calamari ($9) continued our feast of small plates. When I first moved to Rhode Island, I was amused by its appearance on almost every restaurant menu. Now, it has been the official state appetizer for almost two years, and Wara Wara’s version was easily one of my favorites. Its success lies in the combination of tender, fresh calamari, the chunky salt and pepper breading, and the fun mango dipping sauce.
Definitely order the Pork Belly Bun ($7), a soft pillowy bun with large chunks of shiny miso-glazed pork belly. If you’re not a meat eater, the Vegetable Bun ($7) is a creative alternative including kimchee, squash and mushrooms. Both come two to a plate.
We skipped the ramen this time and went for the Bangkok Cataplana ($14), a more easily shared large dish. We were amazed by the extraordinarily plump Cape Cod mussels swimming in a red curry broth.
We couldn’t decide on a dessert, so we ordered all three. The Miso Doughnuts ($7) came two mini donuts to an order with a scoop of green tea ice cream. The salty glaze was simple but spot on. We’d already had the Red Rice Pudding ($7) on our last visit but were glad to try it again. This was an unusual dessert and more subtle than you’d expect from seeing the chunks of bacon. Our favorite dessert was the Green Tea Molten Lava Cake ($8), a matcha version of the classic chocolate lava.
Wara Wara does a great job making creative, approachable Japanese dishes with seasonal ingredients. The menu is diverse and has something for every taste, with numerous options for vegan and gluten free diners. I will be sure to return, and next time I’m going for ramen (and I’m not sharing).
776 Hope Street, Providence