For a London-based blogger, writing about the handmade udon at Koya seems pretty much a pre-requisite. Made onsite from nothing but wheat flour, salt and water, they have had people queuing down Frith Street since the day they opened back in 2010.
While, as usual, I may be well behind the times and can't claim to add anything new or original to all this noodle talk, my ability to eat lots and waffle on remains undiminished. So when a vacancy a couple of doors down from the original saw the opening of the new Koya Bar, providing quick all-day counter dining, I went along for a restorative lunch with the magical Stealth.
The menu at Koya Bar is split into small plates, udon and donburi, with the addition of a breakfast menu that features Anglo/Japanese mash ups like rice porridge with bacon and eggs, alongside more traditional bowls of curry and noodles. There are also a few Daily Specials on the chalk board, as well as Koya favourites such as fish and chips and cider braised pork belly that have made the short hop down the street.
Stealth started as she meant to go on, with the Five Points Pale Ale, while I had a pot of, slightly less rock'n'roll Japanese tea. We also shared a plate of the crisp shredded Otsukemono pickles to get the digestive juices going.
While on our visit Koya Bar had some interesting specials, including the spooky Halloween themed Hokkaido kabocha in black sesame sauce and a dandelion leaf and crispy tofu salad, how could we possibly see beyond bowls of the slippery, fat, pale noodles they are famed for
Udon wise, Koya Bar has a number of options: Atsu-Atsu (hot udon in hot broth); Hiya-Atsu (cold udon with hot broth); Zaru Udon (cold udon with cold dipping sauce) or Hiyashi Udon (cold udon with cold sauce to pour).
I chose Buta Miso Hiya-Atsu, cold noodles served with a hot dipping broth flavoured with ground pork and sweet/salty miso. The broth had the kind of magnificent, marmite umami richness that made me reminisce about my mum’s gravy at Christmas; a potent liquor made with all the rich wobbly salty, fatty bits scraped up from the roasting tin.
The advantage of choosing the cold noodles have a slightly different texture to then ones served in the hot broth, a kind of gummy chew that is rather addictive. After managing to convey a few into my mouth this way (despite pretty fair chopstick skills, these buggers are quite something else to attempt to eat elegantly) I added a few to my broth to plump up and soften a bit further.
Stealth, as usual, quickly got her drinks order in in, then delegated ordering duties to me. Thankfully I was well prepared for this and, after checking on her preferred hot/cold broth/noodle combination, ordered her the Kinoko; hot udon noodles served in hot broth with mushrooms and walnut miso.
This was toasty and autumnal without being at all dank or earthy as she had feared. As we were sitting eating, a large dish of roasted walnuts, looking like autumnal cerebellums, were bought out ready to pulverise into the oily sweet paste that married so well with the fungi.
They also make fresh tempura with a gossamer thin batter encasing huge prawns or delicate pieces of veg. Yes, it cost £12 for the mixed version, but the crustaceans are approaching Jaws like proportions. A word of warning, though, if you don’t want the crunchy cargo served in your soup then order it as a side dish, with udon and cold sauce to dip or donburi (rice bowl) and not with hot broth.
So, Koya Noodle Bar; fabulous udon and Zen like surroundings in the middle of Soho, it does exactly what it says on the tin.
After an hour or two slurping our lunch and (figuratively) chewing the fat in relative calm, we had to dodge the horrors of Oxford Street to get to our next destination. I think the run up to Christmas is the only time this stretch of hell redeems itself , with the gaudy festive baubles looking particularly pretty against the brilliant blue sky.
The walk was worth it, as we had a date with pudding at Paul A Young’s fourth 'chocolate salon' - and the first with a seating area - found tucked inside between Heal’s and Habitat on Tottenham Court Road. As well as a range of brownies, chocolates, biscuits and an exclusive, multi-layered, sea-salt caramel cake, there is also the option to try a variety of hot drinks including various types of hot chocolate and cocoa nib tea.
Stealth warmed her cockles with a mug of the Paul A Young hot chocolate, with chocolate dipped cantuccini biscuits to dunk, while I had a pot of the Henrietta Lovell RAF special blend tea and a cocoa nib and dark chocolate cookie.
The hot chocolate was rich, dark and fabulously unctuous, with the perfect balance of sweet and bitter and a wonderfully clean flavour that comes from the lack of dairy. Extra points for it coming in a decent sized mug, too.
While the cantuccini were a little too refined for my taste, I loved the cocoa nib cookies, which are so friable that they literally do melt in your mouth. The little nuggets of cocoa nib and the dark chocolate coating save things from becoming too sickly, although at £2.50 a pop I haven't had a chance to test how many I could manage in one sitting yet. (The recipe is also in Paul's book, of which the Ewing does have a copy...)
While the obscenely decadent multi-layered salted caramel chocolate cake is the speciality of this new branch, I wasn't sure how a slice would survive a further schelp around London in the depths of my bag, opting instead for a - relatively restrained - sea salted pecan and caramelised milk chocolate brownie, and another cocoa nib cookie, to take away.
As we were preparing to leave the eponymous man himself arrived at the store, donned his white coat and cap, and deftly began began tempering lakes of molten chocolate on the marble bench inside. Although the kitchen area is only very small, there is something rather bewitching about watching a master at work; and while I’m not sure what its final use was, I’m quite sure not much would have made it past my mouth if I was in charge.
While going inside to settle the bill I was powerless to resist a bar of Mast Brothers chocolate, artisan collection and made in Brooklyn with locally roasted Stumptown coffee beans. The bar also cost a few beans, but if your going to scoff chocolate Why not make it the good stuff (says someone who scoffed all the leftover Halloween mini Bounty Bars in one sitting). If you want to read some more intelligent tasting notes then you should probably just read this review at Candyblog.
Finally the brownie. I often convince myself I'm not really a fan of brownies, thinking of them more as ubiquitous and undercooked cakes that have got above their station (and don't have any icing). Then I eat another Paul A Young brownie, and fall in love all over again. There's not really much more I can say about this, other than stop reading and go and get yourself one.