London has been hit with a barrage of new restaurants this month – there’s Daniel Boulud’s first UK venture (Bar Boulud) and the long awaited return of Nuno Mendes with Viajante, as well as second restaurants from established chefs Alexis Gauthier (Gauthier Soho) and Michel Roux Jr (Roux at Parliament Square). Amidst the commotion of all these big name openings, a small pared-down Japanese noodle shop has sprung up at the former Alistair Little space on Frith Street, and quietly stolen the hearts of critics and punters alike. Koya, is no Wagamama, as they specialise in one specific noodle – the Udon; thick white Japanese noodles crafted from wheat flour. Chefs Oda and Yamasaki hail from udon-ya Kunitoraya in Paris, and take their noodles very seriously, using flour imported from Japan and local water from the Thames – with each batch taking hours of back-breaking work.
Thanks to recent glowing reviews from the press, there have been sightings of queues out the door at Koya most evenings so on this particular Tuesday I made sure my friend A and I got there within minutes of it’s midday opening to avoid the throng. It proved a wise decision, as by 1230pm the place was pretty much packed to the rafters, with groups even sharing the larger tables.
The decor in the main dining room is minimal but well-considered, with a pleasing zen MUJI-esque aesthetic. I particularly like the clean lines of the beech plank benches and V-shape backed chairs. The chefs work in an open kitchen towards the back of the restaurant, behind a counter where solo diners peacefully sit and slurp their noodles.
I ordered the Ten Hiya-Atsu – cold udon served with a hot broth and a side of prawn and vegetable tempura, and the Onsen Tamago or hot spring egg (so-called as they are traditionally cooked in hot springs). Our waitress assumed I wanted the slow-cooked as a side to my noodles rather than a starter with soy, so it came in its shell, ready to be cracked into my noodle broth (in the picture, you can just about see the whites of the egg in the small bowl next to my noodles). The fat supple strands of udon were springy and delightfully messy to eat, with the noodles slithering all over the place – especially while being transported from bamboo mat to broth. The dashi-based broth was expertly made – deep and salty, with a hint of sweetness from the mirin and accented with shavings of spring onion and zingy grated ginger, and the combination of soft noodles and savoury broth was heavenly.
The lightly battered tempura was perfectly fried – crisp and devoid of grease. It was a good selection as well (one large prawn, red pepper, aubergine, broccolli and onion), all of which paired well with the hot broth, the batter collapsing a little as it was dipped in and taking on the intense flavours of the broth. My only quibble was with the tempura-ed onion, flash-fried whole so it was still raw and rather pungent in the middle. Perhaps my favourite bit was at the end, when I slid the onsen tamago into the remainder of my dipping sauce, split the yolk with my chopsticks, and drank the egg-enriched broth straight from the bowl.
A’s Niku Udon was a steaming bowl of soothing clear soup with the same elastic, slightly firm to the tooth noodles, thin tender slices of beef, slivers of onions and scallions, and a dab of grated ginger. He liked the delicate flavours but thought there could have been a higher meat to udon ratio, as he struggled to finish the masses of noodles in his bowl.
As a weekday lunch, it’s gonna set you back a lot more than a Pret sandwich, but these aren’t your run-of-the-mill noodles and in my opinion are worth every penny. There’s also a wealth of choice – unexpected considering the singular staple offering. Standard udon in hot soup (Atsu-Atsu), cold udon with a cold dipping sauce (Hiya-Hiya) and cold udon with a hot broth (Hiya-Atsu) all served with a variety of sides and toppings. In addition a collection of small side dishes are available, including various tempura, and a rather tempting pork belly braised in apple cider (Kakuni) which I will be most certainly be ordering on my next visit.
49 Frith Street
London, W1D 4SQ
t. 020 7434 4463