I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone for me to say that I’m somewhat of a noodle-freak; I simply love noodles in all forms that they come in, particularly Asian, but that’s mainly because of my roots. There’s been a lot of love and hoo-har for ramen in recent months with several ramen places opening in Londinium and local favourite MinMin looking to make their own ramen soon. But whilst I like ramen, I don’t think it’s the tastiest noodle that our Japanese friends have given us. I mean, I much prefer something like soba noodles (especially in a cold soba noodle salad) but I’ve always had a bit of a special love for udon noodles. I mean, I love their thick chewiness and even with the packaged stuff you can buy from Asian supermarkets, I actually quite like the sour tang they have at the end. I can remember the first time we ordered udon noodles in a Chinese restaurant and apart from the fact that I was trying something new (with what I thought was a bit of a funky name), I loved how chewy they were. In recent years, I started making my own udon noodles and whilst I can modestly say that I thought they were OK, there was always a little something that I thought was missing – But having not tasted them in Japan, I had no real point of reference, apart from the packets of udon noodles. That was, until Koya opened.
Koya was a bit of a revelation to me the first time I went because it was the first time I recognised that this is how udon noodles should taste, what texture they should be, etc. And from all the blurb that was written about Koya around the time that it first opened its doors, it was very authentic – Some even suggested it was as good as what you could get in Japan. But they also offered dishes other than udon noodles and as you would expect with Japanese cuisine, every dish that came out was as pretty as a picture. But whilst dishes like their tempura was crisp and light like it should be, the udon noodles here were king. Well, they should be considering that the flour is especially imported from Japan and they soften the local Thames water to make them.
The menu at Koya is pretty straightforward: You first need to decide if you want hot or cold noodles, if you choose hot noodles then you will get it in a hot broth, if you choose cold noodles, you then need to decide if you want it with a hot broth or a cold sauce to either dip in or pour over your noodles. The idea is that you would choose hot noodles and hot broth on cold days and the cold noodles option on warmer days. From there, it’s whatever protein takes your fancy. There are rice dishes (donburi) available too, but let’s face it, why would you go to Koya to eat rice? Then there are the small plates and specials; I have a particular soft spot for the onsen tamago which a perfectly soft poached quail’s egg in a light broth. It’s a little 2-bite bowl of deliciousness which I can’t help but every pretty much every time I go. I’m also a bit partial to the seaweed salad and especially like the green salad on warm summer days and the tempura here is pretty good.
If you follow Koya on Twitter, they usually tweet what the day’s specials are to further tempt you; my most recent visit saw us ordering the oysters and Jerusalem artichoke in broth from the small plates (Again, a delicately balanced broth with a couple of lightly poached oysters and chunks of Jerusalem artichoke which added a real earthiness to the whole dish) and ordering the special atsu atsu – char shu lamb with dandelion udon. It intrigued me in that char shu is (like char siu in Chinese cookery) is usually roasted pork (the Japanese tend to just flavour it with soy and honey and not add any food colouring like the Chinese do and slow roast it), so it intrigued me to see lamb being used and wondered how it was going to be served. What arrived was some thinly sliced char shu lamb with some dandelion leaves and other light toppings (crushed ginger and sesame seeds) on top of the udon in a light broth. And well, the lamb may have been thinly sliced but it was packed full of flavour and perfectly pink.
The broth for my Kamo (duck) hiya atsu had a bit too much of a sheen from too much fat floating on the surface (which made it awkward to photograph) and although the slices of duck in the broth were really thick, each slice had been coated in some floury coating which made it all a bit slimy. Still, I ate the lot. As for YKL’s kinoko hiya atsu, it was nice but the brother was served warm and the udon noodles were so chilled that it unfortunately lowered the temperature a bit too much and she was in a rush to eat her dish because the broth had actually gone cold.
So there have been occasional misses whenever I’ve gone, but whenever I’ve taken my friends there, they’ve absolutely loved it. However, the one thing which has consistently been good at Koya is the udon noodles; They truly are a thing of wonder with the perfect chew and spring to them, and there isn’t that sour tang at the end. The noodles are soft, with a bit of a bite to them and are so long that when you actually enjoy slurping them. Whilst there may have been issues with the broth at times, when you get the right combination of noodle to broth, it really is a thing of beauty and a joy to eat.
And therein lies my problem with Koya; Whilst the noodles are fantastic – easily the best out there (OK, Koya is the only place out there offering fresh udon noodles), but whilst the prices may be considered cheap for Central London (they won the Cheap Eats category in the Observer Food Awards in 2011 and was a runner-up in 2012), most of the dishes are priced £10+ when I could go to Noodle Oodle on Oxford St and get a roast duck with fresh hand pulled noodles in broth for £7.50. Plus, whilst the food at Koya is good, I don’t walk out of Koya thinking that it was the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten or that I got great value for money. I mean, ordinarily I wouldn’t bother going back to anywhere if I thought they were overpriced or that I didn’t think it was particularly good value. Yet every few months or so, I find myself going back to Koya time and time again. I think that for all of Koya’s flaws, I am blinded by my love for their udon noodles, so much so that I’m willing to overlook any other factors which may leave me feeling disappointed. I don’t mean to say that Koya isn’t worth going to – it absolutely is – But if it wasn’t for the fact that their noodles are so goddamn tasty, I probably wouldn’t keep going back. And that is the key; I may not think that the food at Koya in general is perfection every time, but I certainly think that the noodles alone are – And *that’s* why I keep going back.