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Saturday 10 July 2010

London Restaurant Reviews - Koya


A restaurant specialising in udon noodles, also known in Japan as an “Udon-ya” (“ya” translates as “shop”), Koya recently opened in Soho’s Frith Street to much acclaim. As in the Japanese Udon-ya (s), the noodles are freshly made on the premises with wheat flour imported from Japan, and traditional methods are used to produce the highly prized springy texture.

Such traditional methods are very laborious, taking up many hours and include various intricate steps in the process. At one stage called “ashibumi” the dough is kneaded by foot. Udon is thought to have originated in the Kagawa Prefecture (modern Sanuki Province) in the southern island of Shukoku in Japan. It is Japan’s thickest noodle, while somen is the thinnest. Soba and ramen noodles are more commonly known in the West; they fall between the two in thickness.

Owned by John Devitt, the restaurant has two Japanese head chefs who worked at Kunitoraya, another popular Udon-ya in Paris. All the staff (apart from John!) are Japanese , which helps to create a very authentic feel to the restaurant. The menu is printed on large wooden plaques on the wall, with the house speciality options being “Atsu-Atsu” (hot udon in hot broth), “Hiya-Atsu” (cold udon with hot broth) and “Hiya-Hiya” (cold udon with cold sauce to dip).

I liked the simple décor, the cream walls and the use of light wood throughout. On my visit, I was fortunate enough to be able to chat a little with John, who explained that the beautiful square floor tiles were found under a layer of carpet from the previous owners (Koya occupies the premises of Alistair Little’s former restaurant).

In Japan udon noodles are eaten mainly at lunch time by youngsters and students as a budget sustaining dish, while older diners tend to avoid it especially in the evenings as it is considered somewhat heavy. I love them in a hot broth in winter, but for the cold options (Hiya-Hiya) I would favour either somen or soba noodles like in “zaru-soba”. “Zaru” style noodles (served on a sieve-like bamboo tray – zaru), served with “mentsuyu” (dipping sauce) and a selection of “yakumi” (toppings) is one of my favourite Japanese summer dishes.

In Brazil, my Japanese grandmother (“O-baa-chan”) used to prepare her own “zaru somen” by quickly dipping them in iced water after cooking, draining and serving them with a mixture of soya sauce and freshly squeezed lime. It was an incredibly simple, light and refreshing dish and we all used to look forward to summer and to my “O-baa-chan’s” zaru somen.

To better appreciate the base stock (dashi broth) without interference from other ingredients, John suggested I should try one of his simplest menu items, and so I opted for Atsu-Atsu Kizame (hot udon with hot broth with toppings of fried tofu and spring onion) @ £7.50. The broth had an intense but gentle and clean flavour which I thoroughly enjoyed. The noodles were perfectly cooked, slightly chewy and with an excellent texture - a perfect bowl of dashi broth and homemade udon noodles.

Dr G decided to go for Hiya-Atsu Kamo (cold udon with hot broth and duck) @ £9.50. Again this was excellent, and beautifully presented. The duck was very tender and gave a deliciously meaty character to the dashi broth.

The “Buta Kakuni” (braised pork belly with cider) @ £6 was one of my favourite dishes, and one that I cook often at home. I first learnt how to cook this dish in Japan using chunky pieces of belly pork very slowly cooked in a mixture of dashi, brown sugar, ginger, sake and soya sauce among other ingredients. In contrast, Koya’s version was braised in English cider which gave a delicious tartness to the meat and balanced the sweetness of the dish.

The “Hitokuchi Tempura” (tempura of cod wrapped in shiso leaves) @ £6 was also delicious. Mainly used as an accompaniment to sashimi, shiso is a herb I adore, and use it whenever I can in my Japanese cooking (see post/recipe here Shiso Pesto and Soba Noodles) – it has a very particular flavour and adds an amazing freshness to any dish.

Koya’s drinks menu has higher than average prices with half bottles of house wine starting at £11.50 (or £23 for a full bottle). I also felt that both the sakes and shochu on offer were overpriced, and the 50ml of plum wine @ £4 a pop exorbitant. Dr G had a Kirin beer @ £3.50 while I opted for hot Japanese tea @ £2.20 per individual pot. The tea was of good quality although no hot water refill was offered.

I first heard about Koya from Jen of Dashi Dashi, one of my favourite London food bloggers. Jen specializes in Japanese cooking and restaurants and her writing is superb. I visited Koya soon after it opened; the restaurant was relatively unknown and was almost empty. Since then I hear the restaurant has become very popular and has massive queues. As it takes no reservations I would suggest going either early in the evening or at lunch time if you can. Also there is a small counter in the kitchen where up to 6 people can be seated, and is a good spot to watch the chefs in action.

Cost: £38.48 including 12.5% service added to the bill or £19 per person (See menu here).

Likes: excellent dashi broth and homemade udon noodles, good green tea, and delicious pork belly in cider (buta kakuni).

Dislikes: overpriced drinks menu, 12.5% service charge added to the bill (not in keep with Japanese dining etiquette).

Verdict: Excellent quality, authentic udon with prices to match. Delicious pork belly and tempura, harmonious decor, and central location. There is definitely a premium to be paid for aforementioned quality/authenticity of food and drinks, this is not a “budget” food destination. Highly Recommended.

Koya on Urbanspoon


  1. Wife adores Koya while I am a bit ambivalent about it. She actually made her way there alone repeatedly after our initial visit.

    I thought that the tempura udon was a bit overpriced and it would way more economical to get plain udon with a portion of tempura (there are four prawns in that, I think) to share. :)

  2. Hi London Chow, I think nearly all dishes are slightly overpriced, but then the quality is excellent. I would like to go back there but I don't find myself in Soho that often anymore.

    Luiz @ The London Foodie

  3. Oooh, can't wait to try this one day... I still haven't made it there. Wow - over £2 for Japanese tea?

  4. Definitelty going to try this but not sure about having to queue on a Friday night.

  5. Sounds like a great place - how nice to have authentic Japanese cooking in Soho! I hope to get there very shortly to try it out.
    Mr Truffle

  6. Ooh, cod tempura with shiso, like that!

  7. I know what you mean about the drinks, but that is so often par for the course in central London that I don;t really notice it unless it is extreme. Not good re the no-refill on the tea though, that's unusual.

    I really like the noodles there, although since i am an udon lover anyhow, i was always going to be biased. I could quite happily eat the thick wormy noodles all on their own with a side of the pork.

    I had the pork and miso stock which was tasty, but verging on the rich side, Next time I'll give the Atsu-Atsu Kizame a go - it sounds delicious.

  8. I've been waiting for a proper udon-ya in London and I'm so happy we've finally got one. I think it's pretty pricey (especially the tempura udon with only one prawn! They should at least put two as they do in Japan), but it tastes like how it should do, especially the soup/dashi, so I keep going back. Great review, by the way!

  9. @ Su-lin - I am also finding myself more and more rarely in Central London, and Soho, I used to love the place but not so much these days. The quality is superb but the prices are quite high for what they are. The fact that the tea is £2.20 and not refilled really annoyed me too.

  10. Nice post. The history & creation of the dish was interesting. I loved this place and will be back for as much cold food during the hot summer as poss. Good blog overall by the way, I add you to my blogroll. Tim

  11. @ Charmaine - hey nice to see you posting messages here Charmaine, thanks! If there is one day I would not go to Koya that is either a Friday or Saturday evening, the queues are enormous apparently. Go at lunch time on Saturday or an evening during the week.

    @ Mr Truffles - indeed, it is very authentic and the quality is excellent but the prices are not so "canteenish". I good place to try though.

    @ Lori Lynn - hello darling, nice to see you back here. I know I also thought it was an amazing combination, made me want to give it a go at home.

    @ The Grubworm - yes, I think it works better to have a simpler option to appreciate the clean, fresh flavours of the dashi stock. The kakuni was fantastic and the tempura also very good. I would like to return but would not recommend it as a "cheap" eat.

    @ Chasingbawa - thank you for your kind words and for your comment, nice to see you commenting here!

    @ Tim £31.75 - Thank Tim, your blog is also great, just read your post on Koya, will return the link.

  12. The portions are small and overpriced. The Prawn Tempura Udon broth comprised of 1 Prawn Tempura. For £9.00, this is very expensive.

    Seaweed Salad on the small plate comprised of literally 2 mouthfuls. Very small portions.

    Drinks are also expensive.

  13. 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…

  14. In Japanese cities Udon is as ubiquitous as fish and chips is in England. For me koya does not represent the true Japanese udon experience which is humble, cheap and quick !


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