A rather loyal customer.. ?
I love udon. I love delicious, honest cooking. And I spend at least 2 of my meals per week at Koya.
Koya – for those still unfamiliar with the concept – is a very traditional, walk-in only udon-ya (udon restaurant). The menu is dominated by one Japanese food category. Udon, that is. This type of thickly cut, white noodle is made from wheat flour, salt and water. It is, then, boiled, washed, and when needed, re-heated. The cooking is an interplay of simplicity. You need good noodle, good dashi and good toppings.
The udon dishes at Koya are served in many ways (i.e. “hot udon in hot broth”, “cold udon with hot broth”, “cold udon with cold sauce to dip” and “cold udon with cold sauce to pour”) and with a good range of toppings to choose from. The udon noodle is made fresh daily at the premise. There is also an inventive “Daily Special” blackboard that utilizes the best of ingredients at budget price, keeping me on edge.
Since its opening, the kitchen at Koya is run collaboratively and successfully by head chefs Junya and Shuko. There is always a queue. Sometimes (bloody) long. Sometimes short. Sometimes, the queue contains world-renown heavyweight food personalities in the like of Fergus Henderson, Heston Blumenthal, and most recently, Rene Redzepi. Answering to the increasing demand of the public, Koya has acquired the space next door and expanded.
This is, however, not a site expansion to make the original Koya bigger. It is an expansion of concepts. The original Koya, now looked after only by Junya, is scaled down in one way and becomes more inventive in another (detail below). The Koya no.2, or Koya Bar, by Shuko takes up the express, all-day noodle bar concept and promises really fast but really proper food. In my opinion, these two Koyas will change the dynamic of restaurants in Soho.
Koya Bar isn’t a “bar” in a western sense but a stretch of kitchen counter where diners can place their order directly to the chefs. Interaction with the waiting staff is reduced to minimum, allowing the meal to be even more speedy. All very Japanese. The restaurant is opened all day, with a breakfast service from 8am until noon.
Divided into small plates (£2.30-12.20), udon (£6.90-13.90) and rice bowls (£11.40-14.90), the menu at Koya Bar is concise and familiar. Porridge dishes (£5.90-10.70) are available at breakfast. The “Daily Special” blackboard features less items but more strenuously authentic Japanese dishes. Old Koya favourites (such as “Fish and Chips”) have returned; popular items from Koya no.1 (such as Ten Katsu Curry, Ebi Tempura and cider-braised Buta Kakuni) have also migrated to this new venue.
During the soft opening, I went to Koya Bar a few times and thought their breakfast was heavenly Asian comfort. Traditional rice balls (£5.90) were molded with blanched and marinated turnip top. The refreshing chlorophyll taste of the leaves and stems made a great pairing for sweet and soft rice. The extra aubergine and cucumber pickle on the side added salty tartness. Okayu (rice porridge) came with two different styles of garnish. The first (£10.70) was “English Breakfast” of grilled streaky bacon, marinated fresh mushrooms and a wobbly fried egg. TOB nibbled a little and later dunked them all in the bowl with a splash of soy sauce. Satisfying, though his only criticism was that long, meaty strips of bacon weren’t ideal to be eaten using just a spoon (or chopsticks). The other style of Okayu (£5.90) was more traditional, arriving with an assortment of cold dishes (pickled daikon, boiled and marinated dry shitake mushrooms, and a soft-boiled egg) and a starchy ankake dashi. I loved the silky texture of broken rice grains. The contrast between the neutral rice-y sweetness of the porridge and the more intense, soy-flavored sweetness of ankake was finely tuned. The vinegary crunch of pickled daikon also won me over. (You might have spotted that I love pickles).
The real highlight of the breakfast menu, however, was the fusion-y Kedgeree Porridge (£9.10). Here the starchy rice porridge replaced the typical rice, butter and cream concoction. Salted haddock and curry powder were added with a careful, balancing touch. A poached egg, crispy haddock skins and fried, sesame-studded bonito crumbs pimped it all up. It was light, creamy, salty, fishy and yolk-y. We both slurped it all up (and will go back for more).
On the lunch/dinner menu there are a handful of new traditional Japanese items not served at Koya before. Kama-tama udon (hot udon stirred with egg and soy sauce) (£7.90) went back to the super simple basic of udon. The raw egg was quickly beaten to curdle and glaze the chewy hot noodle; the aromatic salty sweetness of soy sauce was just what the dish needed. No drama. Kitsune udon (udon in hot broth with tofu and spring onion) (£8.40) was also brilliantly composed. The massively fluffed pillow of tofu (fried and marinated in soy sauce and mirin) had a wow factor. It also simultaneously flavored and slowly intensified Koya’s ultra clear bonito-scented dashi. Last but not least was Ten-Tojidon (£14.30). The raw egg was scrambled in hot dashi and the prawn tempura were added last minute. The mixture was, then, dumped on rice. I didn’t know what this one tasted like because TOB didn’t give me any -__-”
The very original Koya
Junya has long been cooking secrets beyond udon and these secrets can be found on the humbly worded, but retro-inventive blackboard at Koya. (If you follow me on Facebook, you will have known I am a BIG fan)!! The opening of Koya Bar allows the original Koya (where he remains in charge) to showcase this liberal and experimental side. The originally big udon menu is trimmed down; some old recipes are adjusted; (some have been relocated to Koya Bar); the special blackboard is to become more progressively developed.
The so-called development stems from Junya’s interest in shojin-ryori (monk-style vegetarian cooking), foraging, the seasonal aesthetics and techniques of Japanese cuisine, and the availability of fine produce in the UK. (You can read more about Junya’s thinking on this insightful blog). The result is thoughtfully mind-blowing – a kind of retro-inventive Japanese cuisine that not only looks back to the tradition of Japan but looks around, contemplatively, to the edible environment of the UK. This particular cooking style and thought process has been tried and tested many times and to great effect during Junya’s kitchen collaborations.
Last week at Koya, multi-textured confit rabbit was served with “rabbit food”, dried lemon crisps, and the herbs foraged from the ground where rabbits roam. Whole grouse (rubbed with sake and mirin) was left to age and then cooked in a hay pot at a vigilantly controlled heat. The meat was sweet, moist and very tender; the aroma of sake mingled the grouse’s naturally musty scent; the pungent and salty miso-ed mushrooms was an exemplary garnish. For the daily special udon dish, I had deep-fried patties of sweet corn and sardine. (The technique of making deep-fried patty is known as kakiage). This was served with kake udon (plain udon in hot broth) and the crunchy, iodine-rich sardine bone.
The price of the blackboard remains as it was (approximately £8-13). For those familiar with kaiseki, you might notice that most dishes on the blackboard are prepared with different cooking skill sets. If you order the whole blackboard, the meal will become very much a kaiseki-style tasting menu but just casual.
(The other dishes in the grid are (1) pickled beetroot (2) egg-stuffed summer squash tempura (3) pea, broad bean and tofu guacamole with udon “nachos” (4) grilled red mullet with grilled satsuma orange (5) daikon in chilled pea dashi (6) grouse (7) kid goat with mugwort udon (8) monkfish liver tempura with sancho-teriyaki sauce (9) chicory and blood orange salad).
I’ll stop now. Don’t want the queue to get longer..
RATING 5/5 (for both)
50 Frith Street
The original Koya is at no.49 next door to the bar.