Udon at Koya, Soho

by Miss South on August 4, 2010

Oooh-don

As I may have mentioned in previous posts, I seem to be on a massive kick for Asian food at the moment and while I’ve been enjoying my meals out, I realised I seem to have been sticking to Chinese food above all else. Good reviews and a nudge in the right direction from A led me to branch out this week and try Koya in Frith Street for some honest-to-goodness Japanese noodles.

Koya is a million miles from the Wagamamas of this world in many ways, particularly its low key exterior. Even with their beautiful flag hanging outside, I managed to walk past it twice. That might be my stupidity or the fact that I was distracted by the lovely smells coming from Moolis next door…

Once inside, the welcome was warm and I was offered a choice of seats in the understated dining room rather than the much hotter bar area where you can also watch the chefs in action. If I’d been eating alone (or with a dull companion) I’d have savoured that opportunity, but I was happy to tuck into the corner, drink the filtered water provided and wait for A as I perused the detailed menu.

Considering Koya specialises in one thing and one thing only in the shape of the delicious udon noodle, the menu is extensive. My knowledge of Japanese noodles is fairly basic beyond knowing the differences in width, texture and ingredients between ramen, udon or soba, but I have long since been a fan of udon above all others. Possibly because I love serious carbs and possibly because I’ve had poverty induced instant ramen overload…

But despite my udon love, I’ve never really eaten them outside home-made dashi based soups and so was interested to see the myriad permutations Koya offers. The udon are offered both hot and cold alongside hot and cold broths or cold sauces to pour over them. Being a noodle newbie, the idea of cold noodles served separately to the broth was a little bit worrying, fearing that the noodles might be dry or unpleasantly claggy in my mouth.

This lingering fear made me slightly hesitant when ordering. Should I go atsu-atsu and have hot noodles in hot broth or hiya-atsu and try the cold noodles with hot broth? I was sure that the cold noodles with cold sauce or hiya-hiya was a bit too adventurous for me this time. Cravings for duck lead to me picking kamo hiya-atsu and going for the contrast between hot and cold like a big brave noodle-eater. The much less melodramatic A chose hiya-hiya tenzaru encompassing cold noodles with cold sauce and tempura prawns and vegetables. We also couldn’t resist a portion of kankuni or braised pork belly in cider to share…

As I mentioned, cold filtered water is put on each table as standard and I’m glad it is as the other drinks on the menu are fairly pricey. We each ordered Japanese tea, which came in a delightfully little metal pot, but which was not re-filled during the meal at all, making the £2.20 price tag quite hefty in my eyes. The alcoholic drinks all seemed to be Soho bar prices and a few beers or a sake could do some serious damage to your bill as others have noted.

Taking my mind off the drinks was the speedy arrival of the belly pork. Attractively served on a small dish with some hot looking mustard, the three big pieces looked great, but failed to utterly knock my socks off upon tasting. Not entirely yielding and soft, the pork was quite hard to eat, especially with chopsticks and a bit chewier than I’d have liked. But it did taste wonderful with just enough bite from the cider to cut through the richness of this fatty meat and on the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed this little dish, although I avoided the mustard.

I was more than ready for my noodles though and was delighted to see them arrive swiftly. The noodles really are the star of the show here at Koya and arrive in a manner befitting them on a separate dish on top of bamboo matting like the Crown Jewels on a velvet cushion. These noodles are made from scratch on the premises, definitely by hand, possibly the traditional way by foot and you can tell the effort that goes into making them on first glance. Thick, glistening ropes of goodness, they come loosely coiled and garnished with nori and just beg for you to get your chopsticks into them as soon as possible…

Still slightly cautious, I managed to get an udon into my mouth without too much chopstick related mayhem and couldn’t believe I’d doubted them. Robust, springy, slightly chewy and deliciously moist, they make an exceptional mouthful. They were so good I almost forgot about the broth that accompanied them. That would have been a major mistake. The broth was so intensely deeply savoury it was like falling down an umami rabbit hole with each mouthful. The spring onion added a delightful bite to it and the slices of duck intensified the depth of the dashi perfectly. However while the fat on the duck increased the oomph of the broth, it was a little greasy and cloying upon eating. This is just nitpicking however about what was essentially a near perfect meal.

A’s noodles looked as good as mine and came with a tangy cold sauce to which sesame seeds and scallion were added. She preferred to dip the noodles than coat them as neither of us felt confident with the chopsticks and such small sized napkins. Her tempura looked light and appealing, with the well advertised two prawns being real beasts. The vegetables looked a tad pedestrian to me with only courgette, broccoli, aubergine and a humungous piece of red pepper visible. Maybe these fry best, but I would have liked to have seen something a bit more inspired veg wise. I thought the mediocre vegetable selection pushed this price into the overpriced category…especially as she didn’t seem as enthusiastic about her meal as I was about mine.

We ordered around 2.45 with the kitchen closing for lunch at 3pm. We weren’t rushed at all to make our choices and were politely asked if we’d like anything else after we said we’d enjoyed the belly pork as if we might genuinely want to try more, rather than as if the chef had sent the waitress to check we weren’t going to be awkward. We ate leisurely, were left to our own devices and weren’t hassled to leave too quickly, despite being the last paying customers of the shift. This is just as well as I have never felt so full after Japanese food. I felt remarkably like a snake that had swallowed an egg after finishing every scrap of my meal!

The bill came to £34 for the two of us. A’s tempura udon was around £11.50 and my duck dish was £9.50 so we weren’t scrimping and saving, but with the rather expensive drinks and the £6 pork belly, I wouldn’t say this was entirely a budget meal. Possibly if you go for a plainer main and stick to the water on the table, you could eat here cheaply, but I feel the extras do mount up. I wouldn’t say it was overpriced at all though since the ingredients are good, the premises are central, the service is great and the noodles are top class, but be warned that you might be surprised if you were expecting a  cheap and cheerful noodle bar.

Koya isn’t perfect. There were a few niggles for me, mainly involving the quality of the meat and the tempura maybe isn’t their shining star, while the drinks are heftily marked up. But setting these niggles aside, I really enjoyed my meal there. The noodles were so good I keep wanting to capitalise them in awe when typing, while I could have happily put my whole face in the bowl of broth if it meant tasting it better. I will definitely be back again, and keen to try some of the meat free dishes to see how they compare. All in all, I’d say Koya is worth the regular lunchtime queues though…

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Adriana August 4, 2010 at 12:17 pm

Mmmmm, nnnnnnnooooooooodles. I loved them. I utterly adored the braised belly pork too, though. I grant that the large pieces may have been slightly awkward to wrangle with chopsticks, and that it wasn’t braised to slippy, fall-apart tenderness. But holy cats, it was delicious. When we finished it, it was all I could do not to get my inner cavewoman on and start gnawing the plate it was served on.

What I’d really love, however, is lessons in how to make my udon behave. Having grown up in south east Asia, I’ll happily chopstick my way through any menu, but there was something about Koya’s long cold noodles and the small dipping bowl that utterly defeated me. Klutzy doesn’t even begin to cover it. I tried winding them tightly around my chopsticks, spaghetti-style, I tried looping them loosely, I tried them in ones and twos and threes, and all of which resulted in me forlornly splattered in ginger dip. There’s a genuine, pitiful loss of pride in being defeated by a noodle. Does anyone have any tips on eating cold udon without needing a bath afterwards? Please?

miss_south August 4, 2010 at 12:43 pm

See, you went for dainty when it came to eating the udon. I went for shovelling it all down like a beast at a trough which while no doubt lovely for you to have watched, seemed to have kept the majority of the splattering off me. However, I’m not sure this is particularly ladylike, so I’d also like some tips. Especially if that that tip is to eat as many of these fabulous noodles as possible…

sloe-eyed August 4, 2010 at 1:08 pm

If you’d like to continue your exploration of cold asian noodle soups, we must go for some Korean naeng myun. The broth has a very subtle flavor, and the buckwheat noodles can get gluey if overcooked, but it’s the quintessential summertime meal. Not that you’d know it’s still summer here…

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/19/dining/19noodles.html

miss_south August 4, 2010 at 1:49 pm

Let’s bring summer back by sampling naeng myun. Noodles make me feel optimistic!

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