Tuesday 13 July 2010

Koya (& Where To Go If You Can't Get In)

It seems like a lifetime ago since I descended on Koya with a group that included fellow bloggers, The Grubworm, Uyen, and Tom & Jen. Unlike most noodle joints in town, Koya sticks to one type of noodle, udon, prepared in the following ways:
  1. atsu-atsu ~ hot udon in hot broth
  2. hiya-atsu ~ cold udon with hot broth
  3. hiya-hiya ~ cold udon with cold sauce (to dip or to pour)
    Now you might think this would be manna from heaven to a noodle-lover like me but the thing is, udon isn't one of my favourite noodles. I also prefer them stir-fried rather than in a soup or served cold. Combined with the hype generated by bloggers and critics, I was worried that this Japanese noodle specialist wouldn't live up to expectations.

    So it was with some apprehension that I ordered my niku atsu-atsu or beef w/hot udon in hot broth (£8.50). I needn't have worried, as the noodles were of a quality that I've never encountered before in udon, perhaps they do go with soup after all. And the broth was also mighty fine, clean and natural with the hint of ginger combining well with the spring onions. 

    Being a bit of a pleb, I also ordered some tanuki or tempura batter bits to go with my noodles. These added a different texture to the meal but who am I kidding, I just like batter scraps.

    The others went for different combos of
    atsu-atsu, hiya-atsu, and hiya-hiya, which met with universal approval. I particularly liked the look of Jen's tempura that came with her hiya-hiya. One of our party went for a donburi rice bowl, which may seem a strange order but as you might have guessed was competently done.

    However, much as I loved the noodles here, it was the small plates that I was most impressed with. In particular, the kakuni or braised pork belly with cider (£6) was truly outstanding – the 'melt in the mouth' cider infused pork belly combined wonderfully with the wasabi dip.

    We also enjoyed the other small plates of kamo roast (roast duck), kaiso salad (seaweed salad), and lenkon salad (lotus root & green salad). All in all, a great meal with great company that cost around £20/head with a round of drinks.

    I returned a week later but was a little disappointed by my special of prawn & seaweed atsu-atsu. Whilst there was nothing wrong with the seaweed and noodles combo, there was only a solitary prawn and I felt short changed. However, the kakuni was again to die for, this time with an added bonus of a spare rib. And my friend enjoyed her buta miso hiya-atsu although she struggled with getting the cold udon into the hot pork & miso paste broth – is there an easy way of doing this?

    Whilst Koya is pricier than many noodle options in London, I think its worth it and I'm pleased to report that this is one restaurant that lives up to the hype. I've also spotted some seating looking into the kitchen and I need to a bag a seat there next time.

    If you're not thoroughly bored with reading about this restaurant then check out reviews by The Grubworm and Uyen of our visit to Koya.

    Koya on Urbanspoon

    The first time I tried to go to Koya, it was shut, as it was the May Day bank holiday. I was gutted but I still had a craving for noodles so I popped across the other side of Shaftesbury Avenue to an old favourite, Rasa Sayang.

    Whilst there I realised that despite blogging about this Malaysian eatery twice before, I'd never blogged about my favourite dish there, fried fish vermicelli (£6.90). In Cantonese, this dish is called yu tou mai fenwhich translates as fish head rice vermicelli ! You can see this more clearly in the next photo.

    As well as the fried fish head, this dish includes fried fish, preserved veg, tomatoes, spinach, and rice vermicelli in a broth topped with fried shallots and spring onion. As with many of the best soup noodle dishes, it's the broth that makes the dish. In this case, the milky broth is different class, with fishy undertones cut through with the almost medicinal qualities of Chinese wine/tonic. This is an 'if Carlsberg did noodles' bowl of noodles and whilst fish head may not be to all tastes, it is in my opinion, one of the finest noodle dishes in London.

    Rasa Sayang on Urbanspoon

    The final restaurant in my round-up isn't really a substitute for Koya, as there isn't a branch of Hare & Tortoise in Soho. That said in the unlikely event that you are amongst a group that can't decide between Japanese and Malaysian food then this mini-chain is the place for you. I must admit this pick 'n' mix approach to East Asian cuisine put me off coming here for a long time even though the Bloomsbury branch is close to my office.

    Of their offerings, I prefer their soup noodles to their stir-fried noodles. In particular, I like the curry laksa (£6.25), which is generously topped with chicken, fried tofu, prawn, squid, and fish cake. Although this was a different variant to one I had at Kiasu, I thought the laksa here was superior.

    In contrast, my take-away yaki udon (£6), as pictured, was a bit lacklustre. Whilst it was good value and chock full of roast pork, squid, prawn, and crabstick, it lacked quality. The presence of crabstick was disappointing but I was more upset by the lack of garnish, such as pickled ginger and spicy fish powder that normally accompany Japanese fried noodles.

    Whilst Hare & Tortoise may lack the quality of the Koya's and Rasa Sayang's of this world, it's much better (and cheaper) than Wagamama. Overall a good value noodle option should you find yourself in the vicinity of a branch. 

    Hare and Tortoise Noodle Bar on Urbanspoon


    1. Woohoo, you're certainly making up for the recent noodle-post drought! I still need to get around to going to Rasa Sayang, and this information about fried fish vermicelli may be the impetus I need to finally do it...

    2. I would also like to know if there is a better way of cold noodles with hot broth. Currently I fling half in, making an almighty mess.

    3. I, too, have long been a fan of the curry laksa at Hare & Tortoise, so it's nice to hear I'm not the only one.

      Also, I think Noodle Oodle is a good option as well if you can't get into Koya.

      I'll look forward to checking out that fried fish vermicelli, though.

    4. I am very soon going to start making you noodle jealous sir. That said, even though I have been on an udon binge out here Koya remains one of the better I have ever had!

    5. Kake - I have been neglecting the noodles but now the World Cup is over, I'm back on the noodle trail with a vengeance. Do go to Rasa Sayang, I know its obvious but it is worthy of a visit imho.

      Lizzie - my friend tried an incremental approach, which was a bit messy as was your half the noodles approach. I've discussed this with Grubworm and he swears by a 'toss the whole lot in at once' approach, which I can see working.

      A-in-L - H&T is surprisingly not all that bad, which just goes to show don't judge a book by its cover. Not been to Noodle Oodle in ages but it is a good standby for that part of town although I advise steering clear of its sister branch in Bayswater. And yes you must try the fish head vermicelli at Rasa Sayang.

      Tom - I have no doubt that you are going to make me very noodle jealous. Japanese food in Hong Kong is of a pretty high standard - better than London - although I've stuck mainly to sushi/sashimi rather than noodles on previous visits.

    6. I agree with everything you said about Koya - i think their smalls are definitely worth a trip on their own. I quite fancy doing a small plate and sake meal there one day and having the noodles as a side.

      Good to read about Rasa Sayang and H&T. It's always good to have some fall-backs up your sleeve in case of a noodle emergency. I haven't really found a good laksa in London yet (not that i have tried very hard) so will have to give the H&T version a go.

    7. Gworm - I can see a plain bowl of udon combined with loads of sides working well.

      H&T do a decent laksa but I've not found a truly knockout laksa anywhere in London either. If anybody out there knows of a laksa that's a cut above then please shout!

    8. Maybe Koya has converted you to Udon Mr Noodles?

    9. G-Chick - there's no such thing as a bad noodle but udon was pretty far down on my list. And yes, Koya has definitely got me round to thinking udon in soup can work.

    10. How can you not like udon?? After bee hoon, udon is my fave noodles to eat. On a lazy day, we just whip up a batch of Japanese curry and eat that with udon. Slurpilicious.

      Anyway yes I need to go to Koya.

      Best assam laksa is by a drain in Penang, Malaysia :-)

    11. WB - steady on old chap, nowhere in the post or in my comments do I say I dislike udon. That would be noodle heresy. What I said was that I prefer many different types of noodle to udon. There's a big difference. Bee hoon (aka mai fen/rice vermicelli) is a good noodle as are other rice noodles like ho fun and pho noodles. I also love san mein (fresh egg noodles) and ramen.

      I think you'll like Koya where incidentally they have a curry udon, which I think has your name on it. I've not been to Penang but I will certainly consult you on laksa and other food if I ever do!

    12. Ah, but I like the chewier textures of the cold udon! I shall have to carry on just being messy. They should provide bibs.

    13. Lizzie - come to think of it, the toss the lot in at once method will mean that the udon may lose a bit in texture. Pehaps they need to bring out two or three separate mini portions of cold udon. And bibs!

    14. Udon noodles are almost my favourite thing ever. I can't fathom why I haven't made it out to Koya yet. Laziness, I expect.

    15. meemalee - let me know if you're planning a trip to Koya.