Tuesday, 15 April 2014

THE BACKBENCH #1, KOYA

Celebrating its 4th year anniversary since it opened in 2010, Koya is undoubtedly still one of the best places in London for comforting Japanese food.
After failing to get an evening reservation, I opted instead for the afternoon sitting at 1.30pm. Having rushed after finishing my dance class, I arrived slightly flushed and earlier than I expected. I was the first guest to arrive and perched myself at the end of the back bench, in front of the open kitchen.


 

When all the other guests arrived, Chef Junya Yamasaki gave us a short introduction of the concept behind starting The BackBench - the opportunity to go further than their blackboard to bring a Koya-style tasting menu.
And then it was finally time to eat...

  
| Fresh Kombu & Bramley Ponzu |

Kombu is an edible kelp or seaweed commonly used to flavour Japanese soups, noodle broths and stocks (dashi). Served in a shot glass, it had a refreshingly sour taste from the ponzu, a citrus-based sauce, which was a nice start to our Koya tasting experience.

 

| Jellied Eel, Wild herbs & Miso Soup |

Fusing Japanese cuisine with a traditional English dish - jellied eel consists of chopped eels boiled in a spiced stock, which is then allowed to cool and set that forms the jelly, and usually eaten cold. This was topped with delicate pieces of edible wild herbs. The broth was so delicious that I couldn't resist from tipping all my rice into the bowl to soak up all the goodness. 
And washed it all down with a warming bowl of miso soup.


 

| Sansai Tempura |

Different from the usual prawn and vegetable tempura that I have eaten, this dish used sansai, which refers to wild greens/vegetables which are gathered for eating. 
A couple of them had an intriguing sour flavour to it. The leaves were nice and crunchy, just like eating crisps, but better.
Not too greasy and a really great dish that I would be happy to snack on any day.

I don't usually drink in the afternoon, nor do I drink much sake, but I decided to order just one cheeky glass - Miyasaka Masumi "Arabashiri" First Run. 
A seasonal sake made in spring, it had wonderful pure and fruity flavours with sweet and vibrant notes - I know what I'll be ordering from the sake list next time.




| Scottish Seaweeds, Pot Roasted New Jersey Royals, Wasabi & Butter |

Served in a huge pot, it was quite fun digging through the salt, hunting for those hot, steaming potatoes. After shaking off the salt, we dipped them into our bowls of melted butter, with a tiny hint of wasabi on the side.
I was tempted to eat the seaweed, but then I would have probably ended up with a mouthful of salt.

 


 

| Soft-Boiled Egg & Nettle |

There were two separate egg and chicken dishes, and the egg dish was served first - I guess that solves the chicken and egg question?
A lovely soft egg centre, and the nettle was really thin and crisp.


| Grilled Chicken & Calçot |

This was one of my favourite dishes. Grilled over low charcoal heat, the chicken meat was so juicy and tender, with a slight smokey flavour. Served with some sichimi on the side, this may be one of the tastiest chicken dishes that I have had in a while.

 

| Braised Boar, Burdock & Parsnips |

I've had my share of pork belly throughout the years, but not very often had a wild boar version. I don't usually eat the fatty layers, but I cleaned every bit off this dish - the meat was soft and tender and the fatty layers had a firmer texture than what I was expecting, which was tasty. The burdock, another wild and edible, nutritious plant, and the parsnip were also well-cooked. All of them marinated in a delicious sweet-flavoured sauce.


| Eel & Ramson Udon |

And of course we couldn't have missed out on their handmade udon noodles in their light and warming soups. This was topped with a tantalizing piece of eel. Instead of being heavily marinated in teriyaki sauce like other places where I've tried unagi dishes, this was grilled, which enabled us to have a better appreciation of the clean flavours of the meat. Eel meat is generally quite rich due to its high fat content, but when cooked slowly the fat can be drained out, producing a beautifully prepared dish such as this.

 

| Otsukemono |

Like the kimchi in Korean cuisine, the Japanese have their own version of pickled vegetables called Otsukemono (漬物, tsukemono). Japanese pickles play an important part in the Japanese diet - commonly used as a garnish, relish, condiment, or such as in this case, a palate cleanser.


| Botamochi & Innes Brick |

And finally our last course of the meal, dessert!
Botamochi (ぼたもち or 牡丹餅), named after the spring flower, botan, and are traditionally made during the spring higan. It is a Japanese sweet made with sweet rice and sweet azuki/red bean paste. I do love red bean, and I enjoyed the sweet flavours, paired with the smooth and tangy flavour of the cheese.
And we were also served a nice tipple of sake to wash it all down, and a pot of green tea after as well.

 



And not forgetting one for the scrapbook...thank you Chef Junya!




A really enjoyable and intimate dining experience, and definitely worth trying if you get the opportunity. 
Their next date is Monday 19th May, which I believe will be just as amazing as this one.

The Cheekster, signing out x

Square Meal

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