Monday, 17 May 2010
I've given up on sushi in London. I've tried, honestly I've tried - this isn't a decision I've reached based on a handful of trips to Itsu and a pre-flight binge at Yo! Gatwick Airport. I've been all over the place - to Tsuru in Southwark, Ten Ten Tei in Soho, even travelled to Willesden Green, for goodness' sake - nobody should ever have to do that. The Willesden trip was to try Sushi Say, in case you're wondering, a restaurant which stands head and shoulders above its competition only because its competition is Willesden Green. I sat in the wrong seat and was shouted at. I won't be back.
The irony is, of course, that some of my favourite food in London is Japanese, it just isn't sushi. Roka, on Charlotte Street, serves a delicious selection of charcoal-grilled meats, not to mention their famous black cod and miso, and is a lovely place to while away a lunchtime. The bento boxes from the Tokyo Diner in Soho are also pretty reliable (particularly the chicken katsu), and you have to love anywhere that asks - nay, demands - that you don't leave a tip. But like so many things, in London we like our sushi shrink-wrapped, mass-produced and inoffensively familiar. The fact that the best sashimi I've had in this country formed part of a course at the Fat Duck is hardly a glowing endorsement of a vibrant UK sushi scene. And don't even get me started on M&S and their bloody cooked tuna rolls.
It is thanks, therefore, to the seemingly endless and fascinating variations of Japanese cuisine that we don't just have dismal London sushi to judge it on. Latest to cause a stir in the capital is Koya, which takes niche specialisation to a new level by focusing just on udon noodle - those thick, silky noodles which you may think you've had at Wagamamas, but really, you haven't. The Koya udon are made by hand (or rather by foot, by the traditional method), and are served hot or cold with a short but sweet selection of toppings - tempura, beef, chicken, etc.
To share as a mini starter we ordered a few slices of roast duck, which was served room temperature in a light soy dressing and spring onions, and a very powerful (presumably home-made) mustard. A delicate, finely balanced little plate of food which showcased the slices of moist pink duck very well.
For mains we ordered one each of the 'Hiya-Atsu', cold udon with a hot broth. My beef broth was superb, the largely transparent liquid belying an extraordinary depth of flavour. On top we each cracked a fresh cold poached egg ("onsen tamago"), a clever little thing traditionally cooked in hot springs to get a soft white but a slightly set yolk. The real star though was the udon, which for want of a better word were simply incredibly 'noodle-y', with delivered rich, fresh ingredients and an incredible texture, slippery on the outside and meaty within. I made a hell of a mess transferring the cold noodles into the bowl of broth, but it was all part of the fun - they didn't last long. A friend's pork and miso was similarly inspired, although she made far less of a mess of the table with her udon. I think she just wasn't trying hard enough.
Koya is already popular with the diners of Soho, and you can see why. Attractive, unpretentious and with an accessible but pleasingly authentic vibe, it was packed on Friday lunchtime and we even had to wait ten minutes or so for a table for two to become available. Starting with some premium ingredients (special flour is imported from Japan, as well as some bits to make the dashi), it's the extra value in the care and attention that really shows, and our hearty, healthy lunch was worth every penny of the measly £13 or so it cost us each. Well done Koya, then, for showing London how good Japanese street food should be done, and for not charging an arm and a leg for the privilege. Who needs sushi, anyway?