From a distance, it looks like Pasta Wafu's Kerby Craig is cooking up a pomodoro sauce for an Italian pasta dish. That is, until I spy shiitake mushrooms and arabiki sausage simmering away in the pot, moments before Craig upends two whole bottles of Tabasco into the mix, tosses the red sauce through a bundle of fresh pasta, and tops the dish with Grana Padano and nori.
This is one menu special in the works at Pasta Wafu, the Japanese pasta joint jointly owned by Craig (Ume Burger) and Hamish Ingham and Rebecca Lines of vermouth bar Banksii. It's housed on the just-opened Maker's Dozen food hall in The Exchange, the Kengo Kuma-designed building in Sydney's Darling Square precinct. (The building will soon be home to XOPP, the highly anticipated modern Golden Century spin-off.)
The name derives from wafu pasta, the Japanese interpretation of dishes from the Italian motherland, where spaghetti cross-pollinates with umami-rich ingredients like miso paste, soy sauce and parmesan. Craig says it's "salaryman food" – a quick and affordable lunch option for workers, and says the food hall setting at Darling Exchange stays true to the casual spirit of wafu pasta.
"This is the middle ground. We're not cutting ingredients into perfect dice, but the pasta itself has to be perfect," says Craig. "The location and the food is the halfway point between refined and approachable."
There's a core menu of five pastas: mentaiko spaghetti, miso Bolognese fettuccine, naporitan (napolitan) spaghetti and a "kid's spaghetti" (ketchup, soy and cheese) – the cornerstone wafu pastas, according to Craig – plus a kinoko spaghetti with mushrooms, shio koji (a fermented rice seasoning) and shoyu butter, with the option to add an onsen egg. Down the track, there will be menu specials such as that sausage-mushroom-Tabasco naporitan and an uni (sea urchin) cream sauce.
The 600-plus quantities of egg pasta are made fresh on the premises everyday (Craig honed his pasta-making skills at Cibo Trattoria in Vancouver) with the help of a pasta extruder, though Craig points out the likeness between the slurpable staples of Italy and Japan. "You could argue there's not much difference between pasta and noodles," he says. "They both have flour, eggs and water, right?"
But Japanese pasta wasn't always on the cards. When Craig was approached by Lendlease (the owners of The Exchange) in 2017, they wanted him to open a ramen stall.
"But to do ramen in Sydney, the energy bills are too much. You're boiling pork bones for 72 hours, you need a lot of gas, a lot of space – ramen is just not a sustainable product," he says. At the same time, his then-girlfriend introduced him to tarako spaghetti, a pasta dish with mentaiko (chilli cured cod roe), butter and soy sauce. He floated the idea of opening a Japanese spaghetti house with Lendlease, who were initially hesitant to take on the concept.
"But I said: no-one understood Japanese burgers in the mid-2000s. When we started Ume Burger in 2013, we defined what Japanese burgers were: an Australian interpretation of a Japanese interpretation of an American burger," he says.
"Here, I want to be as close to an Australian interpretation of a Japanese spaghetti shop as I can be."
Pasta Wafu, ground floor, The Exchange, Darling Square, 1 Little Pier St, Haymarket, NSW, 2000. Open seven days, 11.30am–9pm. pastawafu.com