Wa Cafe: 'The Japanese Snickers Bar dessert is truly sensational'
Wa Cafe Wa Cafe, 13 New Dock Street, Galway. (085) 130 4508
In Galway for the Food On The Edge Symposium, it seems wrong to be forsaking the magnificent array of Irish food and drink on offer in the marquee alongside the city's Town Hall Theatre, but some friends have told me that they ate an exceptional dinner at a tiny Japanese café the previous evening, so I persuade another pal to join me and off we head.
'Wa' means 'harmony' in Japanese, something that I learn from the restaurant's business card after we leave, but it's an apt name for one of the most charming places that I've eaten in this year. It's a simple little room with plain wooden chairs and tables, and a short menu with the day's fresh fish listed on a chalk board behind the counter.
The first bit of good news is that all the fish comes from Gannet Fishmongers, Stephane Griesbach's exceptional fishmongers, which supplies all the best restaurants in Galway including JP McMahon's Aniar and Jess Murphy's Kai. And it's the first time that I've seen Clare Island organic salmon on the menu of a Japanese restaurant, which means that it's the first time that I'm going to eat sushi made with salmon in Ireland. The other fish listed are West Cork plaice, and mackerel and bluefin tuna from the West Coast.
There are so many items on the menu that we want to try that we over-order, resulting in a bill for two of €53.60, to which we add €10 for utterly delightful service. But we could have eaten well for less than €15 a head.
First, there are little cups of miso soup, for which chef Yoshimi Hayakawa makes the dashi broth fresh each day. The waitress tells us that there are so many vegetarians and vegans in Galway that the dashi at Wa Cafe is made without the bonito flakes that are usually included, and instead, Hayakawa makes her dashi with kombu and shiitake mushrooms. It has depth of flavour and that soothing quality that good miso always does, a savoury richness that belies the simple ingredients that go into it.
Dashi is one of the cornerstones of Japanese food, yet often the miso that we get in Japanese restaurants in Ireland comes from a packet rather than being made on the premises. (Another restaurant that takes its dashi-making seriously is the wonderful Miyazaki in Cork).
We have a piece each of the day's sushi, the fish sweet and delicious. The use of whatever fish is freshest is novel, when really it should be the norm. Too many Japanese restaurants try to offer a large selection of sushi every day, when they would be better off with a smaller list of better quality fish in peak condition. We also try a vegan turnip roll that's good.
A special of a calamari tempura roll has tender squid, with good crunch from the tempura batter and heat from a chilli mayonnaise. The scattering of bonito flakes - katsuobushi is dried, fermented and smoked tuna that's hardened and then grated - brings more texture and flavour to the dish.
The tag line for Food On The Edge this year was 'We need to talk about seaweed' and it's currently one of the most fashionable ingredients that there is, which may comes as a surprise to those reared on the delights of carrageen pudding.
Dr Prannie Rhatigan, one of the speakers at the symposium and a proper medical doctor, has been banging the seaweed drum for years, of course, but it seems as if the message is finally hitting home. There isn't one of the new generation of Irish chefs who isn't using seaweed on his or her tasting menu. Nutritionally speaking, seaweed is a powerhouse - something that our ancestors and the Japanese have always known - and is also one of the world's most sustainable food sources. There's even new research showing that feeding seaweed to cows reduces methane production. At Wa Café, a wakame seaweed salad is subtly dressed and beautifully presented, and you just know that if you ate one of these salads each day then you'd live to be a hundred.
The only element of our lunch that underwhelms is the rice balls: triangular shapes of moulded rice coated around the edge with sesame seeds. They are undoubtedly authentic, but we find them just too stodgy. That should have been enough food - it definitely was enough food - but our friends had told us that we should not, under any circumstances, pass up the opportunity to try the Japanese Snickers Bar dessert. Although the kitchen had closed, we begged. The plate, when it arrived, looked nothing like a Snickers bar - Hayakawa had deconstructed the familiar elements and presented them as a miso ice-cream dusted with cocoa, alongside a caramel sauce and a crumb of peanut and black sesame. Truly, it was sensational. "That's a Michelin-star dessert," pronounced my lunch companion, who knows a thing or two about such matters, having eaten in a fair few Michelin-starred restaurants in her time.
I can't recommend Wa Cafe more highly, both for the quality of the food and the charm of the two women who run it. I gather that Hayakawa was formerly the chef at nearby Kappa Ya, and is now training in a young Irish chef in the art of sushi to work alongside her.
9/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
Yakisoba noodles are €8. Miso soup with a wakame salad would cost €6.50.
ON A BLOW OUT
The most expensive dish on the menu is Teriyaki Beef Don: shiitake mushrooms, garlic, rice, charred spring onion and Japanese chilli. It's priced at €15.
THE HIGH POINT
The discovery of a little café serving exceptionally good food at very reasonable prices. If I lived in Galway, I'd eat here all the time.
THE LOW POINT
Feeling guilty about pressurising the chef to reopen the kitchen to make us the Japanese Snickers dessert.