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