It was with great confusion and indecision when I was faced with four different serving options of udon noodles at the recently opened Koya, on Frith Street in Soho. Specialising in udon noodles, there is a choice of either hot noodles in hot broth, cold noodles in hot broth, cold noodles with cold dipping sauce, or cold noodles with a cold pouring sauce. Confusing, right? We decided to go for one of each of three (as there were three of us) to get a wide spectrum.
But firstly, I was excited to see onsen tamago on the menu. I first read about this here and instantly wanted them; traditionally cooked in hot springs just below 67 degrees C, the white was soft and silky, the egg yolk slightly set with liquid innards. Served in a small bowl with cool dashi broth, we were unsure as to how to tackle it. With a little stab of the chopstick I slurped down half, much like a shot, and savoured it slipping down the throat; soothing, with a salty, bonito-spiked cool broth following.
Next up, pork belly braised in cider served with a dab of Japanese mustard was tender, sheaths of fat moistening the flesh. The accompanying braised shallot fell apart in swathes of sweetness and was a joy to eat. I only wished we had a bit more.
For the main event, I opted for prawn and vegetable tempura with hot broth. Plates of noodles arrived at the table and we were somewhat baffled as to how to go to it. Thankfully our friendly waitress showed us the ropes - I was to dump my noodles in the broth and either put the tempura on top, or to dip them in as I went along. The first mouthful of noodle shovelled in was a revelation. So often the udon noodles I eat, from vacuum packets, are slippery, slimy and flacid. These were gloriously chewy and elastic, seasoned by the broth. Across the table, noodles in a pork and miso broth drew envious looks and we all agreed we would be going for this next time.
Again, I was excited when I saw natto on the menu as a topping, as I'd never tried it before. Natto is fermented soybeans, and they are famous for their challenging texture. A dining companion groaned and made faces when I insisted on ordering it, but I was convinced I would like them. I was wrong. They are VERY sticky. As I tentatively chopsticked them into my mouth, strands of what can only be described as slime hung from my eating implements and down my chin. I rather enjoyed the texture of them, but the taste? Eurgh, the taste. Sour, bitter, and slightly fruity. I scooped in another mouthful before I admitted defeat and I picked out all the rogue soybeans floating in my broth that I had so hastily lobbed in. Later, we were told by the serving staff that only the Japanese really like them. On Twitter, I was asked if they had been seasoned with mustard, spring onion and soy sauce; they had not. Apparently this is where we went so very wrong. The lingering whiff of them stayed with us for a while. A late night distressed tweet of natto burps made me shudder.
We paid £67 between three of us, including tip and 4 beers. Very reasonable indeed, and I can already feel the noodle craving creeping up on me. But not the natto. Oh no.
UPDATE: Upon a second visit, I am pleased to report it was just as good as the first. Pork and miso broth was meaty, umami goodness and onsen tamago, ordered as a topping instead of a small plate comes in the shell, ready to be cracked into and enrich the soup base. Hooray.
49 Frith Street
London W1D 4SG