Monday, 17 May 2010

Koya, Soho


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?

8/10

Koya on Urbanspoon

18 comments:

salty said...

Oh but I really want to go here, even more so after reading your review. But have you really given up on sushi in London? I know it's not great, but there are some pockets of decentness - Tsuru for instance...

Lizzie said...

I still think you need to make the trek out to Sushi Hiro. And try Atari-Ya too.

I LOVE Koya (thanks for the mention) - I have a serious addiction developing for their noodles. I'm trying not to think about them being made by feet...

I was far more dignified in my noodle eating - besides from not being a total oaf :) - though I think it was because I liked to have both cold noodles and noodles in the broth.

the lacquer spoon said...

Greetings from Tokyo! Glad to know Japanese cuisine now looks a part of daily eating-out in London, and quite surprising they serve hand-made udon noodles. I once kneaded a udon dough with my friends, but it was so sweaty job. Udon should be eaten in a shop. Thanks for the post!

Alexander said...

This looks really good.

Forgetting that Alan Yau started Wagamama for a minute, have you tried Sake No Hana in St James?

Also, Maguro in Maida Vale does some good Californian-style oversized rolls.

And Kulu Kulu can't be beaten for cheap and cheerful.

Su-Lin said...

I agree with Lizzie on Atari-Ya or Sushi Hiro.

Silva said...

Atari-ya gets my vote too. The new bar in Swiss Cottage is particularly good.

Niamh said...

And... I will chime in on Atari-Ya too - I go there all the time and it's great. Also, I don't rate Ten Ten Tei. I had dismal sushi and sashimi and poor service there some years back, and I've not been inspired to go back.

I'll have to hit Koya soon - it looks great.

myfreelancelunch said...

Glad Alexander has put in a mention of Kulu Kulu - London's first conveyor belt sushi bar, I believe. It's fast food - so perhaps more like your definition of street food - and totally without pretension. With no hint of mayo (Yo! Sushi just doesn't do Japanese, does it) this is the real thing. OK, it's no place to eat leisurely (they limit the time you can sit) but then street food is often eaten standing up anyway.

If you can bear to venture as far as Chiswick, try our tiny sushi bar at 4 Devonshire Road - Makoto. West London really isn't that bad!

gastrogeek said...

I'm with you on the lack of decent places. There used to be a half decent place near Goodge Street, but I believe it closed down a few years ago. In Japan,they say that any fish that's more than 8 hours dead is unfit for sushi. Someone ought to tell M&S that really...

Helen said...

The best sushi and Japanese food I have ever had in my life was in Frankfurt. I used to willingly go on business trips there just to eat the food. The fact that it was on expenses made it even more excellent.

In London I get takeaway sushi from the Japan Centre food hall. If they cannot do it right then I shall give up my quest.

Emyr Thomas, Bon Vivant said...

I agree with Lizzie re: Sushi Hiro - I have not been myself, but I've heard great things about the place, and about Dinings in Marylebone as well.

Garlic Confit said...

So Far:

Corcoro, Defune, Miyama have not let me down on fresh varied and delicious sushi.

Unfortunately my favourite place Wakaba on the Finchley rd is no more..:-(

dining table said...

I have never been in this place. The food looks great here. Something to look forward the next trip!

Chris said...

Thanks all for your suggestions. Sushi-Hiro and Atari-ya are on the list, as is Dinings, although it may have to wait until after pay day because I have a feeling I won't be able to resist ordering their Wagyu served on a hot pebble.

poptart said...

Sushi Say is absolutely awful I have never been so disappointed. However Atari Ya is without doubt the best sushi I've had in London, the staff at the Hendon branch are so lovely and the prices are unbelievable. Their toro sashimi is to die for (and at £8.30 for five very generous slices rather than the usual tiny slithers a total steal) and if they have the wild seabream I can't recommend it enough. It is always full of Japanese diners and I have never had a bad meal there. Honestly it's worth the journey.

Eva Lai said...

Given up on Sushi?!?!!!! Come to this side of the world and be my hot date!! I'm just getting intrigued by all the bursting flavours of sushi and it doesn't cost much! Yes bloody M&S INDEED

James MacAonghus said...

Sakana Tei off Regent Street is brilliant, mainly caters to Japanese diners, little known.

Alec said...

Problem is that most Englishmen seem to think that all Japanese food consists of is sushi! So every poor bloody Japanese restaurant has to make sushi or customers get sniffy. Fact is, sushi is only a small part of Japanese food and is best left to sushi restaurants or at least Japanese restaurants with proper sushi chefs to make! When non-sushi restaurants with no sushi chef start making sushi, that's when problems arise. Nice to see places like Koya and Abeno (okonomiyaki) serving Japanese food without pretending to be able to make sushi as well. And let's hope British consumers get more sophisticated and start to realise that most Japanese meals eaten in Japan do not involve sushi!