We've been very lucky. Since last summer, we've had a bona fide udon-ya (shop) right here in London. Serving sanuki udon (a type of udon from the Kagawa region of Japan) that is prepared in-house, Koya boasts chefs that trained at the famed Kunitoraya in Paris. Proper udon and one even my extremely fussy Japanese mother approves.
The best thing about udon is its simplicity--yet the eating experience is anything but. The noodles, the soup, the toppings. Everything has to be perfect. It's one of the first things we would eat when we land in Japan. It's one of the few foods my mother craves whenever she is away. Many will opt for ramen. But the true lover of Japanese food will always go for udon or soba because it is the taste of home.
Koya opened on Frith Street, in the heart of rainbow-coloured Soho in London's West End--right opposite my favourite Karaoke Box (where you can belt out the best J-pop) and just a few doors away from Bar Italia and legendary jazz club Ronnie Scott's. Koya doesn't take reservations and their compact and minimalist interior--where you may have to share your tables with strangers--fill up very fast.
One of the things that surprised me was how mixed the clientele is. It's not just Japanese people slurping noodles here. All sorts of nationalities are parking their bums on the seats. Don't get me wrong, udon has been available in many Japanese restaurants here, but many non-Japanese people prefer sushi, tempura, katsu and ramen--citing that udon seems a tad tasteless compared to the more popular Japanese dishes (and that includes my father). So I am happily stunned to find Londoners embracing udon and, especially, zaru udon (cold udon). And if you don't get there early enough in the evening, you can expect an hour's wait. Oh yes.
The menu is pretty simple. The menu is divided up into Atsu-Atsu (hot-hot) udon, Hiya-Atsu (cold udon with hot dipping soup) and Hiya-Hiya (cold noodles with cold dipping sauce or cold soup to pour over). A friend of mine tried the Hiya-Atsu but was left feeling confused as the hot dipping soup quickly cooled to something very lukewarm. However it seemed pretty popular amongst the other customers.
There's also a selection of donburi such as gyu-don (beef cooked in soy sauce and mirin, served over rice), ten-don (tempura on rice) and curry-don. The curry here is pretty good and spicy, although I felt it needed to be thinned out with soup a little more for the curry udon. But perfect with rice, I think.
And they have several side dishes such as buta no kakuni (stewed pork belly that is meltingly soft) and onsen tamago (soft boiled egg with dashi). They also do fish and chips with a twist--white fish tempura with renkon (lotus root) chips.
However this time we had kaiso (seaweed) salad since it was a pretty hot day. It's sweet and sour and refreshing.
Even though it was a hot day, I still prefer my udon hot. Yeah, I'm seriously lacking in training and although I love zaru soba (cold soba), call me unsophisticated, but I'm still a newbie to cold udon. My favourite udon has always been tempura udon which I had at Koya last year. Truly delicious except that they only give you one prawn. It's huge, but still, I've eaten enough tempura udons in my life to expect at least two. But since I'm still off prawns (allergies), I opted for kizami udon with ten-kasu (bits of tempura batter).
Kizami udon is plain udon with deep fried tofu and spring onions.
I ordered the ten-kasu on the side to make it a tanuki udon.
And with a healthy addition of some shichimi (seven spices including chilli powder).
Since I can't have the prawn tempura, the next best thing is bits of tempura batter that soak up the soup making it soft on the inside yet still crunchy on the outside. SO good. Although I wasn't such a fan of the deep fried tofu which came cold. Next time I think I'll just have the kake udon (plain udon) and the ten-kasu.
The best thing about Koya is the noodles. They make it sanuki style which has a more robust elasticity and is my preferred udon. The soup is similar to that served in the Kansai region of Japan and is clear.
My eating companion had the buta miso udon (pork and miso that melts in the soup), which is a combination that I haven't had before in any udon shop.
I guess I'm pretty conservative when it comes to eating noodles. It wasn't bad although the miso was a little sweet for me. But she was very happy with it.
And we ended the meal with some sencha (green tea) served in an old fashioned Japanese kettle, just because we were too full for anything else.
Each time I visit Koya I am struck anew by the quality of noodles and soup. Simple, perfect and filling. Now all I need is a proper ramen-ya to open in London.
Literary servings to go with this meal:
Picking Bones from Ash by Marie Mutsuki Mockett - in which a young mixed Japanese American women returns to Japan to unravel her mother's past. Beautifully written and highly recommended debut.
The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto - in this latest novel to be translated into English, Yoshimoto spins a tale of a young couple overcoming solitude and trauma to build a safe cocoon in which they can dream of a future together. Modern Japanese life with a twist.