6 December 2010

Koya, London - Restaurant Review

If I were to be stranded on a desert island and had to pick only one kind of noodle to take with me, it would definitely be the mighty udon noodle. Those thick, toothsome strands are just so satisfying and versatile. So on a recent trip to London, I was delighted to get the chance to try out a restaurant called Koya which, like all decent Japanese restaurants, specialises in just one thing – in this case, udon noodles.

Koya hasn't even been open a year, but it has already attracted a legion of enthusiastic fans, and I can see why – the noodles served here are fantastic and on a par with those I've had in Tokyo. Koya make their own udon noodles daily in the restaurant's basement, and I gather they import their wheat flour from Japan and use the traditional method of kneading the dough by foot. Proper udon noodle dough is just too thick to knead by hand, so using your feet allows your body weight to do much of the work.

We arrived at Koya just after 12pm, having taking my eldest daughter, Little Miss Nibbler (aged 4 years 2 weeks), to the theatre. The restaurant was fairly empty when we arrived, but within ten minutes of sitting down there was already a queue forming at the door. The interior is quite spartan, with tiled floors and simple wooden furniture giving a sense of Zen-like calm. As you can imagine, the menu here focuses on udon noodles, where you can have hot or cold noodles in a hot broth, or cold noodles with a cold sauce. Of course, there are non-noodle dishes such as donburi (rice bowls with different toppings) and other smaller plates.

Little Miss Nibbler announced that she would have the 'fish & chips' (£7), which comprised of cod tempura with thin lotus root crisps, sliced spring onion, grated daikon(?) and a vinegary dipping sauce. I managed to sneak a bite, much to my daughter's annoyance (we're still working on the sharing thing) and it was fine, if a bit bland for my taste. Although judging by Little Miss Nibbler's happy smile, she really enjoyed it.
We also ordered some tsukemono (£2.50), or homemade pickles. Unlike the Japanese pickles I'm used to, these were thinly sliced turnips, which had a lovely fresh acidity to them.
Mrs. Nibbler went for a ten curry don (£12) which, apart from sounding like a character from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, was a rice bowl topped with Japanese curry sauce and a solitary, but huge, prawn tempura perched on top. This was also accompanied by miso soup.
I had a ten hiya-atsu (£12.50), which is cold udon noodles served with prawn and vegetable tempura and a bowl of hot dashi soup. Accompanying this was some tanuki (£0.50), which are crispy flakes of fried tempura batter. The 12 years I spent in Yorkshire as a boy frequenting fish & chip shops meant that I insisted on calling these 'tempura scraps'. Amusingly, tanuki gets its name from a mischievous mythical Japanese character with unfeasibly large gonads that can apparently stretch to the size of eight (eight!) tatami mats (ouch). The original 'golden balls' then. I digress...
The cold noodles were served on a bamboo mat topped with strands of nori (dried seaweed). These were precariously transferred by chopsticks into the dashi soup and topped with the tanuki, chopped spring onions, grated ginger, and sesame seeds. The dashi broth had a fantastically deep umami-rich taste, and caused the tanuki to gradually turn into gelatinous blobs of yumminess. But it was the noodles that really stole the show. Proper udon noodles are such a revelation, so different to their distant soup packet relatives. The ones at Koya were dense, but also light and springy, with a fantastic al dente bite to them. When lubricated by the soup they were joyfully (and noisily) slurped up. Just fantastic.

Sadly, the same couldn't be said of the tempura. Chunks of vegetable tempura that included broccoli, aubergine, and I think sweet potato, were heavy and oily, and I didn't really care to finish them. The prawn tempura was better, but it too was quite greasy. I'll probably steer clear of the tempura in future and go for something else.
As a comparison I thought I'd attach some photos I took on a recent trip to Tokyo. This was from an udon-ya somewhere near Shibuya station. It was a simple canteen style set-up but, as was to be a common theme in Tokyo, the food here was impeccable. As you can see from the photo it seems, at least at this place, that less is more in terms of how much dashi they place in the bowl. I think I prefer this way of serving udon as it allows the full flavour of the noodles to really shine. Also, in contrast to Koya, I found their tempura to be so light and almost greaseless. And like a proper Northern chippy, their tanuki 'scraps' were free.
It is testament to the quality of Koya's udon noodles that you can even make a comparison with the stuff served in Tokyo. Koya really is a fantastic addition to the capital's Japanese dining scene, and Little Miss Nibbler and I will definitely be back from more!

Food:        6 / 10
Service:     7 / 10
Ambiance: 6 / 10

49 Frith Street
London W1D 4SG
United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0)20 7434 4463

Koya on Urbanspoon
Square Meal