Koya has been the talk of the London food world since it opened in April and I admit – I jumped on the Koya loving bandwagon early on and have been waxing lyrical about it to anyone who would listen since.
Koya specialises in one thing, udon, and it does it right. Like a true Udon-ya, the noodles are made fresh on premises daily using a traditional method apparently involving kneading by foot. I might be yelled at for saying this, but I don’t generally rate Udon as highly as say Ramen, but perhaps that also has to do with the fact that there are very few (or none that I have come across) true Udon-ya’s outside of Japan.
Koya from the outside can quite easily be missed. The first time I visited, I remember making a mental note that the restaurant sat in between Ronnie Scotts and Barrafina and still had difficulty locating it. On the inside, the restaurant is very Muji-simple and non-offensive with menus covering the walls. No gimmicks, just udon.
This visit, I arrived at Koya just before 7pm, and whilst I originally planned to wait outside for my friend to arrive, I was ushered inside as surprisingly it wasn’t busy at the time. London water arrived quickly to the table and whilst I opted for still, I really appreciate that many new restaurants are installing carbonating systems to offer guests either still tap or sparkling at no (or little) cost. A nice touch.
Not being our first visit, we didn’t really need an explanation of the menu, but at the same time unlike our earlier visits, there weren’t wait staff on hand to offer their guidance. Koya’s menu doesn’t deviate too much from slurpy thick udon, and offer a number of ways to enjoy your udon.
Atsu-atsu: Hot broth, hot noodles
Hiya-Atsu: Cold udon, hot broth
Zaru Udon: Cold udon, cold sauce to dip
Hiyashi Udon: Cold udon, cold sauce to pour
On my first trip to Koya, I opted for Atsu-Atsu which turned out to be a bit of a mistake. The real joy about Koya’s Udon is the chewy, bouncy yet smooth texture of the noodle. Unfortunately I discovered that when the noodles are cooked for the second time to heat them for service, the noodles lose a lot of this chewy texture, and instead turn a little slimey and slippery. The slower you eat your bowl of noodles, the longer they cook and the more slimey they get.
This time, we both decided to order the Hiya Atsu – cold noodles, hot broth with no toppings as well as Tempura and Onsen Tamago. Onsen Tamago are amazing poached whole eggs cooked at a constant temperature at 65 degrees celsius. Think Joel Robuchon’s Ouef cocotte but served in a umami dashi broth. Of course before the days of induction cooking, and as the english translation of the name suggests, Onsen Tamago or Hot Spring Eggs were apparently cooked in the constant temperature of the hot spring baths in Japan.
A small plate of tempura arrived first to the table which was crisp and lightly battered, but in no way representing much value at £10 for two prawns and a slice each of aubergine, capsicum, pumpkin, brocolli and courgette tempura. Next time I think we will order our udon with a side of tempura as I think you get slightly better value.
Our Udon Noodles arrived soon after, and as I fondly remembered were perfectly chewy, dense and silky. The dashi broth served alongside was not too strong in flavour and not too hot at the same time.
Our Onsen Tamago arrived next. Originally when we ordered, we indicated to the waitress that we wanted the Onsen Tamago from the small plates menu. She suggested that we order the eggs as toppings as they are exactly the same and she couldn’t understand why one was £2 and the other £1.50. Well lets hope she hasn’t been working there for long because as we quickly found out, there is a difference. The topping portion is served as a whole egg that you need to crack into your soup; whereas the small plate has the cracked egg in a bowl of dashi broth. I was a bit surprised that the egg was served stone cold, as I have always thought that after cooking, the egg should be brought back warm before serving (well according to Momofuku recipes anyway).
Koya serves up a consistent bowl of udon, but it doesn’t come cheap, especially when you consider that at the end of the day, are just noodles. While the quality of the noodles is a clear reason to go back, the serving portion of the tempura and cold onsen tamago is a major let down. Water is free, but tea comes at a £2.20 per person and the restaurant offers half bottles of wine at an expensive £13. One last gripe is that 12.5% is automatically added to your bill, which whilst I wouldn’t object (and would probably leave anyway), is rarely something that you would encounter at a Japanese restaurant.
If you haven’t eaten here yet, you may well be one of the last in London to do so. When we left, the line up outside was incredibly long, especially since it was quickly turning into a rainy wet one. Seems like Koya’s popularity is only growing stronger by the day.