Words can’t describe how happy I was to finally see the opening of Koya, London’s first (well, second if you count Geisha) serious Sanuki udon specialist in Frith Street, Soho. Four of us spent a leisurely 2 hours at the counter, chatting to the staff and sampling dish after dish of incredibly authentic Japanese grub, washed down with some decent shochu and Yebisu beer.
Koya is the kind of resturant I love.. unfussy, minimalist, and unpretentious with staff that are passionate about what they do. We’re talking fine dining ethos at prices a fraction more than the horror show that is Wagamamas. Junya the head chef explains to us how they make their secret dashi, (the lifeblood of any self respecting udon shop) from scratch, on a daily basis, using specially softened water and specially sourced katsuobushi (bonito) . Their udon is made fresh on the premises kneaded in the traditional Sanuki fashion – by foot. For this, they use a more alkaline water, and they cut it with an imported udon cutter from Japan. One would expect this sort of info to make up the opening sales schepeil on the menu or website, but it is on neither. Whilst many restaurants make a point of "line caught this", and "locally sourced that", here, high quality ingredients and attention to detail are expected as the norm, and the food is left to speak for itself..
So onto the food:
Small pieces of cod wrapped in Shiso, fried tempura style – dipped in a citrus ponzu whets the appetite
Next comes an Onsen Tamago (£2) – the first time I’ve seen this outside Japan. Traditionally cooked in thermal hotsprings (onsen) a fresh egg is boiled at 75 degrees for 25 minutes. The result is a beautifully silky barely cooked egg, cracked into a small dish of dashi and garnished with spring onions, slipping down the throat like rich oyster. A few lightly picked vegetables –fresh cabbage, carrot and seaweed pickled overnight in slightly acidic water and salt are presented as a crunchy prelude to the Kamo Rosu - sliced roasted breast of duck, braised in a soy based sauce, served with a dab of hot togarashi mustard. Oshitashi (blanched greens flavoured again with Dashi, soy sauce and sesame cleanse the palate before their awesome version of Buta no kakuni (£5.50 - Pork Belly unusually cooked with cider alongside the more standard ingredients of soy sauce, ginger and sugar). The lean parts are not quite as tender as the version I tried at Tosa recently, but the fat melts in the mouth almost like a super smooth peanut butter, and you can tell by the intense flavour that it's been cooked for 2 or sometimes 3 days. Next, an interlude of Renkon (lotus root) crisps – lightly fried and deliciously sweet..
Only now do we get to what we have come for – the Udon. For those aren’t familiar with the intricacies of Udon culture - Sanuki udon is a chewy variant which originates in the island of Shikoku.
We go our separate ways – I go for the fairly unadventurous option of Prawn tempura Udon - served with hot broth which I spiced up with Shichimi powder provided on the table.. the Tempura is freshly cooked to perfection, and soaks up the beautifully complex dashi that hosts the satisfyingly chewy Udon. The others have other variants – cold noodles covered in minced pork and miso, dipped in hot soup (the cold noodles are even more chewy) or you can also opt for a cold dashi based sauce to dip into – great for the summer. Prices for udon range from £6.50 for simple Kake udon (udon in soup) to about £11 for versions with various toppings.
By this time we’re pretty stuffed, but Junya insists we try some of his special Kimchee (off the menu) but full bodied and delightfully spicy. We’re then (god know how we managed it) are invited round off the meal with the house special Ochazuke – a bowl of cooked rice, covered in seasoning and nori, is submerged in their special dashi. The final umami hit of the night before we roll home.
So there you have it – possibly my favourite new Japanese restaurant in London – somewhere where you can just as easily pop in for a quick and cheapish lunch, or experience a near–fine (yet casual) dining experience. This is the new benchmark for casual Japanese dining in London. Get there before the queues go round the block…