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[London] Koya - Serious Udon specialist in Soho..

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…

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  1. Wow.

    Great report. Definitely going here sometime this week.

    1. Sounds amazing. Thanks for the report.

      1. Thanks for the report - Am looking forward to trying when next in Londinium :)

        1. Great- sounds like what a lot of people have been waiting for a long time. This might even get my husband back to eating Japanese food again!

          1. Oh my goodness, noodle happiness. Usually we wait until we are in Japan to eat noodles, the better to avoid disappoint. These are the best Japanese noodles we've had in a long time. The staff are clearly still getting used to the premises and trying to figure out how to plate efficiently. However, service was pleasant, starting us off with a free plate of homemade pickles.

            We also had the buta no kakuni, which was good. Could be a tiny bit more tender but the flavor was deep and well-balanced sweet and salty (£5.50). This was served with spicy mustard, which adds a kick to the pork.

            Next, we ate two different noodle dishes: duck udon (cold udon, duck soup) with an additional onsen tamago; and, smoked mackerel and greens udon (with soup to pour). The two dishes were totally different. The duck broth was very rich, very umami with generous chunks of duck. The smoked mackerel udon came in a small bowl with a dab of wasabi on the side. The greens were fresh and included shiso, which added a sparkle to this dish. All this was stirred together and served with a small pitcher of sauce on the side. In both cases, the udon was chewy and held the flavors well, as described by foreignmuck. None of the usual sad, soggy noodles served up by Wagamama...

            Wonderful, refreshing dinner. We will definitely be back to test the rest of the menu. Total damage £26 not including drinks and service.

            1. Thanks for the report! Out of curiosity, how does Geisya's version compare?

              2 Replies
              1. re: limster

                Tried Koya out on Friday night, and was very impressed. Had the belly pork (really tender and flavoursome), the lotus root salad (oh my, I really loved this - great contrast in textures, subtle but tasty dressing), and then I had the cold udon with the hot pork and miso broth. As others have said, these noodles are fantastic. They have a wonderful texture - slightly chewy in the best possible way. The broth was really well flavoured.

                I will definitely be heading back soon.

                1. re: limster

                  For some reason, Geisya/noodles was not on our radar! We have only eaten random sushi at Geisya (which was decent)... will have to look in next time.

                2. just had lunch here
                  going back for dinnerrrrrrrrr
                  think I'm in love <3

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: skut

                    I went to the "soft" soft opening a couple of weeks ago. The service as expected was a bit erratic but staff still pleasant. I suppose it was difficult to deal with orders from the whole restaurant coming at once...especially on the first night.

                    Certainly the best udon in London but for the price/portion, I was hoping for a bit more. I am more into soba as I come from kanto but my friend from kansai gave the place 6/10 which is a pretty decent score since he is comparing directly with Japan.

                    Definitely will go back soon.

                  2. Went today, and yup, this place is a keeper!

                    I had the cold udon with smoked mackerel and greens (already described by MonkeyC). Really good, marvelously chewy noodles, fresh greens, a squeeze of lemon, a bit of wasabi....really refreshing dinner. After a long and somewhat muggy day indoors, it really hit the spot. Like others have said, Wagamama is a joke compared to this place. I will definitely be back, probably next week.

                    My one complaint is the price of the tea - a small pot (for 1) costs £2.30 or £2.50 or something like that. The noodles are special, and I am fine paying £9.00 or £10.00 for a bowl, since the serving size is appropriate and the quality is excellent. But the green tea is not special, and in my mind, a single diner should not have to pay more than £1.50 for non-special green tea.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Dave MP

                      I had that for lunch yesterday, cold noodles with smoked mackerel, bean sprouts and green leaves with a chilled dashi to pour over, and it was amazing. So much so that I did indeed return for dinner, gf in tow.
                      For dinner we started with the seaweed salad, which was I think wakame and another kelp dressed in a light emulsion with some spring onions. It was very small, but absolutely delicious, for four quid. This was followed by cod tempura, with deep fried lotus root, accompanied by a plate of what I think was minced daikon, and chopped spring onions. There were about five or six large chunks of well fried cod, demonstrating a light, crisp batter and good technique. This was not my choice as I don't tend to get particularly over excited by deep frying - I'm pretty adept at it myself and tend not to see the fuss in competent execution, rather I tend just to despair at the greasy evidence of weak technique - but this was fine, and really very generous, for what was I think £6. I got a lot more pleasure from the salad though.
                      The chef who I'd been talking to at lunch recommended me the hot udon with mushrooms and walnut miso, and it was absolutely splendid. While the flavours of the dashi were paler at a higher temperature (though this might also be because they were different stocks, as I think I remember her saying that they make different stocks every day, one for meat, one for vegetarian bowls, perhaps one for fish also?) the sweet and savory richness of the walnut miso, when stirred in, made it utterly compelling, as did the pleasing textural play of the mushrooms and noodles (again, I found the noodles more interesting cold).
                      We were also served a splendid amuse, two small dishes, one containing a salad of kelp and mushrooms, one of flaked anchovies and bonito.
                      I don't think I need to say how much I like this place, but I feel I should also add that on both visits the waitresses were helpful without ever being over attentive (it was pretty much empty both times) while the kitchen team, who are on full view if eating at the bar, are seriously engaging, to watch and to talk to.
                      I'm sure they'll cope fine when they get busy, they don't seem like they would let standards slip, but while it's still quiet I'd recommend going down and spending time at the bar and let the chefs talk you through the menu. This kind of engagement makes it, for the price, surely the best restaurant experience in London right now.

                    2. Went again over the weekend, along w/ some friends. Everyone enjoyed the meal. Two friends got the hot version of the mackerel/greens udon, which looked great. I had the hot udon w/ prawn tempura - the prawn tempura itself was very good, perfectly fried, broth was really nice too. Noodles were less chewy than in the cold Udon I had on my first visit, so I missed that chewiness. But I guess that's the case generally in hot vs cold.

                      A friend who had spent several years in Japan was very happy to see natto on the menu, he ordered some w/ rice, and said it was good. I tasted it, having never tried natto before, but I was not such a big fan. But based on what I read/see, it seems good for those who like it.

                      Our table was brought a complimentary amuse that skut describes: a salad of kelp and mushrooms, and flaked anchovies and bonito.

                      Overall, I really like this place, and it looks like it might be on my regular rotation.

                      dave mp

                      1. Thanks for the rec. Will definately check this out.

                        1. Time Out Review today:

                          is the place getting busy yet? I haven't been for 10 days.. need my fix!

                          3 Replies
                            1. re: foreignmuck

                              Passed by at lunchtime today, around 1:30, and it was packed.

                              I hope they are ready for the crowds!

                            2. I was thinking of getting dinner for two here on thursday - is it worth making a reservation, or is it more of a drop in type place?

                              3 Replies
                              1. re: babybat

                                I don't know if they take reservations. But if they do, then yes, it's worth making one. Last several times I've gone past at peak hours, there have been people waiting outside.

                                1. re: babybat

                                  nope, definitely no reservations... there have been substantial waits at peak times recently, although i went about 9.30 last saturday and got a table straight away....

                                  1. re: foreignmuck

                                    No reservations, no. We wanted to go with a fairly large group pre-theatre so we turned up in time for their opening at 5:30. There was a small group waiting outside for the doors to open, everyone was seated and within 10 minutes the place was full. Nobody seemed to have to wait very long, though.

                                2. The best dish I have had at Koya has been cold noodles with walnut miso/hot broth and mushrooms - the miso is so addictive I find myself eating most of it straight. The chicken and vegetable udon with hot noodles was tasty spiked with the shichimi and a deep chicken broth, but I prefer the more delicate broth of the former.

                                  1. Just to echo my delight at the walnut miso -- a complex blend of sweetness and umami, with a very satisfying crunch from the walnuts. The miso worked very well with the mushrooms in the broth, their savoury flavours mutually enhancing each other. The cold udon I had showed excellent texture -- just the right density and, superb chewiness.

                                    The sweet and spicy ginger drink was also wonderful, all the soothing comforts of ginger in a cup.

                                    1. Call me a schmuck, but I went to Koya and ordered Beef Gyudon (I was on the tail end of some truly awful food-poisoning and thought rice would be less unsettling) and found it to be pretty disappointing. The sauce/broth used just a tad too much bonito, thus making it totally wiggity wack.

                                      I love udon so plan on returning, but just thought I'd give my two pennies!

                                      1. Can't wait to try Koya! On a related note, are there still 0 handmade sobayas in London? Where does one go to get a soba fix? Or is making it at home still the best bet?

                                        1. The udon is as good as ever -- firm, bouncy and chewy, yielding with the right resistance. Had a cold version with a sesame dip -- flavourful but balanced, without excessive richness, cut by judicioius amounts of green onion, and perhaps a tiny point of spicy chilli.

                                          Very good skate wing tempura -- clean, crisp and light batter. Moist with short and very thin fibres, delightfully punctuated by occasional crunches from bits of cartilage.

                                          Lots of a mellow beefy flavour in the miso-marinated ox tongue. Brighted substantially by a squeeze of lemon, with a good grassy, vegetal counterpoint from some cress.

                                          1. I've been to Koya several times and have always been impressed, particularly as the udon here has always been better than any udon I've ever had in Tokyo - only some, not all, of the udon I've had in Takamatsu has been comparable.
                                            Alas, I didn't feel this way yesterday. I had the hiya atsu walnut miso option, dipped the udon into the broth and slurped the slightly warmed noodles and... they tasted rather bland. The texture was OK, not quite as satisfyingly 'koshi' as I remembered, it was more the lack of taste. The only way to salvage the dish was to put the udon into the soup and let them stew there as long as possible so that they could get some flavour from the broth.
                                            The walnut miso was delectable - shame I couldn't just eat it without diffusing its splendour into the stock. I also enjoyed the miso marinaded cucumber 'pickles'. The shock was realising that my own home made noodles were better tasting than those here, which has never been the case before.
                                            I arrived before 12am and by the time I left the restaurant was still over half empty.
                                            Did make me wonder if the lacking in excellence wasn't a one off phenomenon and that regular clients have been perceiving a decline in the quality.

                                            Anyone else have any recent experiences?