Koya

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Noisy, messy and certainly not a pretty sight. That was me slurping my way through a bowl of noodles at Koya in Soho. This tiny restaurant is making big waves in the London dining scene simply by specialising in one thing, Japanese udon noodles. Udon noodles are the white, thick meaty looking ones made from wheat. More about them later, for now all you need to know is that the restaurant itself is an austere shrine to the noodle. Almost like a canteen, customers sit side by side on wooden chairs at communal tables. The menu hangs on little wooden tablets hung from the walls which is something you see quite a bit in Japan, along with the curtain marked with Japanese characters which marks the entrance. There is nothing fancy about it, but nothing either to distract from the pursuit of the perfect noodle.
 

 
The menu is divided into hot udon noodles in broth, cold udon noodles in hot broth and cold udon noodles in cold sauce – literally oodles of noodles! There are a few non noodle accompaniments as well which are described as “small plates”. Of these, I tried out the onsen tamago (£2) which translates as hot spring egg although this egg was poached in its shell and then served cold in a small bowl of dashi stock. The egg was supple and slippery while the stock had a rich flavour to it.
Onsen tamago
 
The prawn tempura noodles (£9) were served in a large bowl of clear, crisp dashi stock and were topped with a huge, crispy coated prawn. While I was disappointed to only get one prawn, it was a monster and the dashi was a revelation, clear and flavoursome. Famously at Koya, the noodles are made by hand and by foot. That is to say, they are made from scratch each day and part of the process involves kneading the noodles by foot (a technique called ashibumi). This is what gives them their fabulous suppleness and bounce. The wriggly tendencies of the udon noodles means it is almost impossible to eat them quietly and without spraying little bits of dashi stock around, indeed the Japanese happily slurp away noisly at them so there is no shame in joining in (that’s what I told myself anyway).
 
The down side to the great noodles and cheap prices is that no bookings are taken which means it can be difficult to get a table. Queues often stretch out the door and it took me a few attempts to actually manage to eat at Koya. The secret is to get in early, if you are prepared to have lunch at 12.01 you will find an almost empty restaurant, but one that quickly fills up.
 

 
Prawn tempura udon noodles
 
Koya is a great little noodle joint and it is good to see London restaurants start to specialise in particular regional cuisines (like the rise of Sichuan restaurants instead of just Chinese) and in actual dishes like at Koya. This can only mean good things for the quality and authenticity of the food we get to eat.

 

Essentials
Details: 49 Frith Street, Soho W1D 4SG (Ph 020 7434 4463) Tube: Tottenham Court Road
Damage: Such a bargain my mother would approve
7/10

 

 
Links
If you liked reading this you might be interested in a review of a more pricey Japanese restaurant like Roka or if you want to cook Japanese at home try this recipe for beef tataki.

Koya on Urbanspoon

16 comments

  1. I am a HUGE fan of Koya, though I avoid their tempuras as I don’t think it’s good value for money. I love the pork and miso broth with cold udon, and even better is the mushroom and walnut miso broth. The onsen tamago as a topping comes in the shell and is awesome cracked into a hot broth.

  2. I like the place because it is so different from what we can get in France and it is one of the reasons why I love London.

  3. I didn’t really enjoy that onsen tamago, but I agree the prawn tempura udon is excellent. The first time, my prawn arrived all soggy in the soup, so during subsequent visits, I’ve asked for an extra prawn (they’ll do it for an addition 2-3 quid) and for the prawns to be served separately on the side. It works well.

    It still seems a lot of money for a bowl of udon noodle soup, but you’re right that Koya serves a top example of the dish, so maybe a premium is deserved.

    Did you notice how well dressed other diners were? On one of my visits, I swear there was a lot of Miu Miu and Max Mara around, lol. Not an everyday sight at a noodle shop.

  4. Yes, impossible to eat daintily! The cold udon with hot beef broth is my favourite dish here, and agree with An American in London that Koya is attracting a trendy crowd (lots of thick rimmed, black glasses!).

  5. I really enjoyed Koya when I went but – NO ONSEN TAMAGO! I must go back.

    Lovely review 🙂

  6. Yes! Love an Asian find in London! Thanks!

  7. It’s great here. Next time you go, you must order the kakuni (cider braised belly pork) as a side dish.

    I’m not sure I’d have it down as a bargain but I think you get what you pay for and that’s good quality.

  8. Koya is such a wonderful new thing! I’ve also had the (one) prawn tempura udon which was sad but I’ve seen them walk around with big bowls of JUST tempura which looks divine and I might try that next!

  9. Lizzie – the walnut and mushroom broth did look tempting – will try it next time

    Mathilde – I agree vive le difference!

    An American in London – I didn’t have the soggy tempura problem you had – I think because there were a lot less customers so the orders came out pretty quickly

    Greedy Diva – dainty was just not happening

    Niamh – yes you must

    Lex Eat – I agree

    Mr Noodles – thanks for the tip

    Catty – yes must try that next time

  10. Still writing my review of Koya, loved the place and the dashi broth is one of the best I have had outside Japan as it is the homemade udon noodles.

    I felt however that it is not a “bargain” – it is not an overly expensive restaurant but there is definitely a premium for what you are getting which is top quality food. The wine list is expensive with half bottles of wine priced at £11.50 and above, and small bottles of sake for £9. Green tea is priced at £2.20 per individual pots and are not refilled.

    Having 12.5% service charges added to the bill is also very un-Japanese, in fact, Japanese will not take any type of service or tipping.

    Luiz @ The London Foodie

  11. Luiz – I take your point – the “damage” rating is a bit of a dilemma as I think paying £12 for a meal, (which is what my bill came to) is a bargain in London. However I agree that there are other cheaper noodle joints around. For a noodle joint it is on the pricier side, but for a restaurant in London generally it is cheap. That’s why I rated it a bargain. Look forward to reading your review!

  12. Right well that’s it; I am officially the ONLY London blogger who has not been here. Soon, soon…

  13. Although pricey at first glance the quality of the noodles really does make it worth it.

    I wish you could order ‘double noodles’ though.

    There is a film called ‘Udon’ which I suppose did for udon what ‘Tampopo’ did for ramen.

  14. I tried Koya last night and it was fab, especially the pork belly and the mushroom udon broth. I’m so pleased to see great value ethnic restaurants taking over Soho – about time there were places like this you could guarantee a great meal at a good price. Paris has tried to grab that crown for too long, and it’s Asian restaurants have FAR worse food! x

  15. Helen – Yes you must go!

    FB – I agree – the quality is worth paying for.

    Sasha – Ooh I must try the pork belly and mushroom broth it sounds great.

  16. Food wise, don’t expect either value for money or taste sensations. Our enduring imagine of Koya, is that they could learn a trick or two from some well known chains. The kamo roast duck breast was basically executed with a flat soy soup, some spring onions and a knock-your-head-off wasabi paste; completely unbalanced.
    Value hunters beware; your dinner money would be better spent elsewhere…

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