Ramen is more well-known in the UK, but I can see udon is about to become more widespread. First, long running udon specialist restaurant Koya are opening their third branch called Koya Ko in Hackney. And now we have the Marugame Udon chain in town too. They are already opening their second restaurant at the O2 only a month after launching the Liverpool Street branch.
Personally, I’m surprised it has taken so long for udon to catch on. Unlike ramen there are a lot more vegan and vegetarian options and udon is arguably a healthier option. Maybe in a few years we’ll be able to eat a bowl of udon noodles for lunch in most regional cities across the country!
The first Koya restaurant I saw was Koya City right by Cannon Street station although the original restaurant is in Soho. Both boast long queues at lunch, but when we went for mid-week dinner we did not have to wait. Udon is usually a lunchtime dish so you may say this is why, however the restaurant was still busy. Because of this, the staff offered us a table in the seating area outside, but this was not a problem. Koya City is well inside the Bloomberg Arcade so there are no passing cars or weather issues to worry about.
I’d seen a number of reviews online that the Kakuni (which is braised pork belly) was incredible, so I had to try this. Meanwhile my friend got a side dish of Kakiage. The Kakuni came out first and did not disappoint – it was rich, juicy and literally melted in your mouth. This slow cooked pork was one of my guilty pleasures in Japan, so I am glad that Koya’s Kakuni was on point. Their Kakiage was also good with generous clump of veggies encased in the batter and crisp with no oily aftertaste.
You can decide three different noodle options at Koya. Either hot noodles in hot broth, cold noodles bathed in hot broth, or cold zaru style with dipping sauce. Zaru is the lovely wooden strainer the cold noodles are placed on top of, and zaru udon is a summer staple in Japan. As it was a summer day, I went with the cold udon “TenZaru” set, while my friend went with the classic choice of Curry Udon.
I liked how the starters and main dishes came out with just enough time in between to enjoy the meal. We were certainly ready for the oodles of noodles when they came. For both of our dishes, Koya’s thick noodles were pleasantly chewy and tender. This is what Japanese people call “koshi” and perhaps what many foodies on Instagram refer to as “bouncy”. Koya, like many good Udon restaurants, make their noodles in-house and chill the noodles immediately after boiling them. This is why you can expect such a supple noodle experience when eating there!
My cold Zaru noodles were accompanied by a slight sweet “mentsuyu” dipping sauce which paired perfectly with the noodles. There was also a separate small dish containing sliced green onions and ginger which you could add to the dipping sauce. Extremely refreshing and perfect for a summer day. My friend’s curry udon was also the comforting bowl that he was expecting and packed full of flavour. Koya add seasonal vegetables to the curry, and he had some a nice topping of aubergine with his. His only complaint was he was too full after all the amazing food!
Finally, I have to comment about the tempura prawn and vegetable dish that came as part of my Tenzaru set. Udon and great tempura make for the perfect combination. Koya get all the points when it come to their tempura. Their vegetables are fresh and the batter was crisp and light as a feather. Then you get this gigantic prawn as well. I have genuinely never seen such a supersize prawn and it can not be easy to add enough batter to wrap around it! I was concerned about the taste before eating, but the large prawn was tender throughout and the airy tempura batter matched it like a charm.
The best udon restaurant in London award should go to Koya. It’s a full five stars out of five for us. The udon noodles are authentic, their tempura are just right, and we enjoyed their Kakuni very much. The service was excellent and I liked how your whole order was not all slid onto your table all at once. I’ve seen some reviews about bad staff attitude from a few years back but we did not have this. I’ve also read a negative review from a leading newspaper from a guy who knew nothing about udon and spent most of his article trying to criticise the staff for not attending to him. We had friendly staff coming up to us asking how things are and if we wanted anything else so not the same experience for us.
If I could add another star for Japanese restaurants pushing the industry forward and introducing Japanese culture the right way, I would for Koya. It’s clear they know what they are doing. They don’t do the gimmicky marketing but instead let the food do the talking. I love authentic restaurants and am iffy about “fusion” but Koya go above and beyond here. You can see from their menu they are creative, hone their dishes, and add local ingredients which work. I also am very supportive of their Koya Ko concept with Tachi gui (standing up eating udon). While I’ve never done this, it is something you see in big train stations across Japan. Hats off to Koya for being the industry leader from day 1 and we hope to check out your Soho and Ko branch soon!
We rate Koya as one of the best Japanese restaurants in London. If you want to see the other fantastic Japanese restaurants on our list, please click on the link.