Note: please see September 2013 update at the base of this post.

Koya is a Japanese Udon Noodle bar. Simple. Minimalist. Stylish. Busy. Two friends and I went last week. This is how it went.

We started by sharing a few small plates: two from the daily specials board (pickled mackerel sashimi and tempura broad beans) and one staple dish of vegetable tempura (Yasai Ten Mori).

The pickled mackerel sashimi was one of my fellow diner’s highlights. I suspect the third member of the party was also keen on it too, given the way she quickly claimed the best bits … I liked how the sashimi was presented as a beautiful, whole (all be it sliced), silver fillet. The slices of raw onion served on the side were a surprisingly likeable contrast to the tangy and oily pickled fish. Like the decor of the restaurant, this was effortlessly cool.

Little battered broad beans were delightful; in particular when doused in salt or eaten with whatever the spicy condiment on the table was (the waitress didn’t know – I’m guessing garlic salt, a bit of chilli, something like paprika or sichuan pepper, some type of dried green herb (perhaps oregano), maybe some umami). And the vegetable tempura selection was tasty – nice, tender squash, aubergine, pepper, beans, broccoli etc in a light, non greasy batter. Enjoyable dipping sauce too (you get to add sesame, fresh ginger, chilli, spring onion etc to taste). All good stuff.

Enough about the appetisers. The main event was, of course, the Japanese Udon noodle. Fat, thick, flat, al-dente noodles, handmade on site each day using wheat flour imported from Japan.

Essentially you’ve got four options: hot udon in hot broth (Atsu-Atsu); cold udon served on the side of hot broth (Hiya-Atsu); cold udon with cold sauce to dip (Hiya-Hiya); and cold udon with cold sauce to pour (Hiyashi Udon). There are also some rice dishes. But come on, why would you order rice in a noodle bar?

I suspect you are thinking, already, that this is the real deal (it is). You probably don’t need me to tell you either, that the noodles are very good (they are).

We didn’t try any Hiya-Hiya or Hiyashi Udon. I’ll give the cold dishes a go next time but ultimately, on the night, none of us could see too far past the Atsu-Atsu and the Hiya-Atsu. In our defence, being three, we were never going to sample all of the options anyway.

I reckon the smoked mackerel and green leaves Atsu-Atsu (Hiyashi Saba) was probably the least well received; I didn’t get the impression that the subtle flavour of the broth kept the eater interested for the whole bowl. But the spoonful I tasted was definitely nice and relatively unusual: a very fresh and light broth and a generous sized bowl of noodles, smoked fish and plenty of herbs.

My other friend changed his order of chicken curry Atsu-Atsu, to mushroom with walnut miso Hiya-Atsu (Kinoko Hiya-Atsu) at the last minute. The waitress said he wouldn’t be disappointed. He wasn’t. He (like me) loved the well sized pile of cold noodles to add in to the tasty broth.  He also, in particular, liked the large lump of walnut miso paste that he was given to mix in to his taste and at his leisure.  He put it all in straight away and didn’t talk much until he’d slurped the last drops of his broth.

Which leaves my dish. I’m pleased to say I think I chose best: pork and miso paste Hiya-Atsu (Buta Miso Hiya-Atsu) was really super good.  The broth didn’t look as pretty as, say, the smoked mackerel broth, but was sweet and meaty and awesome.  I enjoyed adding the cold noodles to the hot broth about half a portion at a time. I also loved scraping around the bottom of the bowl to unearth nuggets of juicy porky bits. As tasty a dish as I’ve had for a long time. I also had a Tamago with my main (described as a poached egg, but in fact a not quite soft boiled egg that you break into the broth for extra interest and protein) and felt this was a good addition. Even though I’ve said I’ll try the cold sauce or dip, it’ll take some serious self-discipline not to order the pork and miso broth every time I go to Koya in the future.

So the food was pretty darn good. But I’m going to finish, unfortunately, on a sour note.

Koya operates a no bookings policy. This is fine – indeed it’s fair and probably appropriate for what ultimately represents a casual, accessible, quick eat. Koya is also supremely popular at the moment and, it follows, is also very busy; if you go, you will queue. Again, fine.

However, if a restaurant operate a no bookings policy, and the only place its customers can wait is outside and down-wind of a club’s smoking section, I think it should aim to be slick. That doesn’t mean the restaurant needs to rush its customers. But it does mean staff should take orders and provide bills at the earliest opportunity. Service for us was excellent when it eventually arrived.  But that was 10, maybe 15 minutes after sitting down (at this point there were still people outside who, like us before them, had already been there for a good 20-30 minutes). And once our mains had arrived, there was absolutely no risk of getting any attention without walking up to a waitress and asking for it. Earlier in the evening there were plenty of tables having similar experiences waiting for their bill, whilst we were catching cancer outside.

Koya is well worth a visit and I will return – probably on multiple occasions. The noodles were as good as anything I ate in Japan and definitely better than anything I’ve eaten in London. It’s just a bit of a bummer about the waiting.

Koya in 3 words

Broth. Udon. Waiting.

The Bill

Small plate starters were between £4 and £7; mains between £8.50 and £10.50; semi-soft boiled eggs £1.50 each; bottles of Kirin £3.50; bottles of still and sparkling water, £0.00.

Total was £19 each plus service. Good value.

www.koya.co.uk – 50 Frith Street, W1D 4SG

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Update September 2013

Since 2011, I have been to Koya more often than any other restaurant. It has rarely slipped below super, in particular when my meal has been supplemented by items from the specials board. I wrote about the specials in March 2013 – amazingly they’re still getting better; I’ve loved, in particular, confit rabbit salad (above), monkfish with apricot miso, barely cooked pigeon with peas and nettles, and various special udons.

Of particular note, however, is the fact Koya is evolving. The classic noodles are still available, and I continue to recommend cold noodles with pork and miso broth or cold pork and miso sauce. You can, however, also get these items, as well as breakfast from the new Koya Bar next door, which opened at the end of August 2013. I enjoyed an early morning meal at Koya Bar (think grilled smoked fish or kedgeree with rice porridge, miso, pickles and green tea) and thoroughly recommend this as an alternative to our western sugar, fat and caffeine dominated fixes.

This evolution of Koya has two effects: (a) hopefully shorter queues to get a noodle fix; and (b) over time, a greater focus in the original restaurant on those superb specials, which fuse British seasonal ingredients and Japanese techniques like no other place in the world. Exciting times. Read the Skinny Bib for more detail.

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