Wednesday, 30 October 2019

CoCo Ichibanya, Covent Garden

Over the years I've tried a few times to boost the number of shorter, single-item reviews on this blog, but for whatever reason - guilt of judging a place from only one dish, the worry that anything less than a 1800-word treatise on the state of the world making it look like I'm being lazy - there's not many made it through the decision-making stage. But I'm going to write about CoCo Ichibanya based on one plate of food that took about 10 minutes to eat one Wednesday lunchtime because this one dish is, after all, what they're famous for the world over, and because it's really rather good and deserves as many people talking about it as possible.

On a trip to Japan in 2011, our little group was drawn into the Kyoto (I think it was) branch of CoCo by the Westerner-friendly pictorial menus and decently fast-food prices. I remember it being a fairly brief, but nonetheless pleasant experience, and the name stuck with me for the rest of the trip as a place to get reliably good katsu and where I could point at what I wanted on a menu rather than attempting a challenging combination of phrasebook research and full-body mime. It was a lot easier ordering chicken than pork, let me tell you.

In London, fortunately, the language barrier is no longer an issue, though staff are no less friendly and well-drilled. There are some cosy booths - always, absolutely the best type of restaurant seating - but as a solo diner I was led towards a row of window stools, which were nonetheless nicely spaced and pretty comfortable. This ain't no Kanada-Ya St Giles where you run the risk of jabbing a stranger in the ribs whenever you try and scoop up some noodles.

To be perfectly honest, I knew what I was going to order before I stepped through the door, but a quick flick through the menu revealed a surprising number of customisation options for your curry which I don't remember from Japan. There's all sorts of bizarre extras - cheese, kimchi, natto, omelette - and if you're in the mood you can have a whole hamburger patty plonked on top of your katsu, both things to be soaked in curry sauce of course. Resisting the temptation to order a sausage and eggplant curry with added calamari rings and clams, or pay a £3 premium for an extra half a kilo of rice, I settled for the rather more sane control option of pork katsu.

And it was, despite the journey of 6,000 miles and eight years, still worth cooing over. Breaded pork cutlet was greaseless and a nice firm texture, not dry or chewy but with just enough of a bite to keep its shape. The rice was fluffy and light, cleverly holding together even when used to sponge up the gravy, really the ideal texture. And the 'Level 2' chilli level spicing was just - only just, mind you - the right side of bearable, cleaning the sinuses and warming the cockles on this dreary London October day. I dread to think what 'Level 5' (the maximum chilli factor) is like, they must have to have St John's Ambulance waiting in the wings like they used to do at the Grillstock Chilli Eating Competitions in Bristol.

The bill came to £15.98 including service charge, and was worth every penny. Yeah it's a couple of quid more than the anaemic Wagamama version - fine if you're stuck at Heathrow T5 but hardly worth bothering with otherwise - and those cardboard pots they keep warm in the cabinets at Wasabi all day, but as far as I'm concerned you get exactly what you pay for, which is one of London's better (if not actually the best, though I'm no expert) katsu curries, straightforward, attractive and authentic. I arrived for a very early lunch (as I am wont to do), but by the time I left, there was a queue outside. As there should be. Welcome to London, CoCo Ichibanya. I think you'll like it here.



Pleb said...

I always get the level 5 curry, "crazy hot" as the menu describes it. Nice and satisfyingly spicy, and best with the potato croquettes

Anonymous said...

Just want to say thanks for still writing your blog and not giving up and going to Instagram. I prefer words to pictures (well, both are good!) and miss all the blogs that have fallen by the wayside. So thanks for still writing yours, not going spon-con crazy, and keeping me entertained over the years - I don't even live in the UK anymore, just enjoy reading. Cheers!

Nyasha said...

The fact that we have a CoCo curry house in London has taken it’s time but I’m so glad it’s finally here despite the extreme steep price! It’s almost like we have to pay triple for the delicious taste. I just wish that there were higher spice levels cause I’m sure level 5 is only a level 4 in Japan. I hope you can check out my post and comment: