“It’s only a noodle bar,” the bemused builder shouted from down the street. “Who the hell queues to get in a noodle bar anyway?”
As I stood outside Koya, hoping the line of people wasn’t so long that it’d fill the tiny dining room completely before I managed to get a seat, I wondered the same thing. Everyone appeared sober and the place didn’t seem to sell kebabs. It was 5.28pm on an otherwise quiet Thursday evening and my Salfordian brain couldn’t fathom what was going on. Does nobody watch Neighbours in Soho?
We got seats but only just. The two foreign language students who sat next to us were the last customers through the door before people started getting turned away. It was now 5.31pm and the restaurant had been open for exactly one minute.
“It must be good if it’s this popular,” my wife whispered across the table. “I hope so,” was my reply.
Things got off to a strong start with some tempura – two large prawns with an array of vegetables, including courgette and sweet potato. Some of the veg was underdone and I would’ve liked more flavour from the prawns, but tempura lives and dies by the quality of its batter and this most definitely lived. It was the sort of batter you always hope for but so rarely get; ultra crisp yet exceptionally light. I was picking at the scraps long after the prawns and veg had been consumed.
My wife enjoyed her opener too: a special of duck, poached and served sliced in a cold broth. In most noodle bars this was would be a disgusting dish – low-quality meat in a cloying, pond water sauce. But at Koya it was serene and refreshing; a nice bit of duck, carefully cooked, submerged in a delicate stock. I was very impressed.
Unfortunately, the meal was about to take a bit of a downward turn, and it wasn’t the restaurant’s fault. Carried away with the starters, I’d forgotten that I had absolutely no idea how to eat noodles with chopsticks. No idea, even, where to begin. My buta miso hiya-atsu arrived, I looked down at the two pieces of wood and the little spoon that had come with it, and thought to myself: “How the hell am I meant to get this food out of the bowl and into my mouth?”
Regrettably, my ignorant brain went into solution mode:
Right… I need an expert to show me what to do, fast… someone Japanese, I don’t trust these gajin… OK, there’s one in the corner – just watch… fuck me, look how high up she’s holding the chopsticks… mad skills… she’ll do… right, what precisely is she doing… looks like she finds the end of the noodle first, then she lifts it completely out of the broth… seems easy enough, I can do that – what next… OK, so she drops the noodle down gently on the spoon and then circles it round into a neat little pile… that looks pretty easy too – not much to this so far… now for the eating pa… eww, I did not see that coming… I would’ve thought that was bad manners… did she really slurp it…. yes, she really slurped it… she’s still supporting it with the chopsticks but she’s definitely just sucking it into her mouth… well, I guess I best follow suit… when in Ro…
“How the hell are you meant to eat these?” my wife hissed across the table.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got this one,” I said confidently. “I’ve been watching that woman over there. She seems to know what she’s doing. Think I’ve got the technique down, so just follow my lead…”
OK, my turn… the wife’s looking to you for guidance on this, so don’t mess it up… first things first – find the end of a noodle… hmmm… no, that’s not one… that’s not one either… where do the ends of noodles live… I can’t find one anywhere, this is trickier than I thought… I wonder if the noodles in my bowl even have ends, they just seem to be made entirely of mi… aha! …got one… we’re cooking on gas now… easy street… right, time for stage two of the operation – this’ll be a cinch… lift the noodle from the bowl… OK, no need to panic, I’m just still lifting it from the bowl… and STILL lifting from the bowl… are my noodles longer than hers, I think they’re longer than hers… still lifting… I’m going to run out of arm in a minute, bloody hell… OK, no worries, here we go… nearly there… get the spoon ready…
…what the fuck was that, where’s my noodle gone… it was there one minute and now it’s… oh my god, I think it broke under its own weight and went back in the bowl… what a splash that was… must’ve fallen about a foot… am I wet… no, I’m not wet… oh shit, are the customers sat next to me wet… no, thank god – they don’t seem to have noticed… has anyone noticed… oh great, the wife has… she’s pissing herself laughing…
There were three more unsuccessful attempts to copy the Japanese lady before I gave up and developed my own highly inefficient technique. The illusion that nobody had noticed the splashing was shattered when the customers next to us asked if they could move to a different table, shooting me a disgusted look as they got up to go. I don’t think they wanted to be my friend.
The udon noodles – when I finally got them into my mouth – were excellent and I loved the broth they came in. I couldn’t quite get over the pork and miso paste looking like the poo of an ill dog and I felt it spoiled the flavour of the stock the more it filtered in. But by this stage of the meal I’d more or less forgotten about the food and was thinking more about what a tit I’d made of myself. Oh well.
I arrived at Koya looking for a top cheap eat in the West End and I think I found one. It reminded me a little bit of Yuzu in Manchester, an oriental hidden gem doing food far better than a lot of restaurants twice the price. Of course with its Michelin Bib Gourmand and Observer Food Monthly awards Koya’s already well-discovered, but the feeling of a small kitchen punching above its weight is the same.
I would love to go back and try the tempura again. I may give the noodles a miss!
(Thanks to Hungry Hoss for the recommendation.)
Dining Room: 2.5/5
Overall score: 45/100 (Good)
Reviewing a restaurant just a few weeks after I last visited and reviewed it feels a little strange to me. In the past (see Mark Addy), I’ve simply tacked a few comments about the revisit on to the end of the original post because there’s not much more I need to say – certainly not enough to write a whole new article.
But Kyotoya last night was the first meal I’ve had since setting up the blog where I’ve bothered to take pictures,* so I figured sod it, let’s give it a go!
There were two dishes I was desperate to eat on my second visit to Kyotoya: the shichimi chicken breast I adored so much last time and the spicy whole sea bass, which I’d heard good things about. Being a budding fatso and in the position of choosing food for the whole table of three, I also ordered the shichimi salmon and shichimi beef, and the house special fried rice and fried noodles.
The salmon arrived first, alongside a delightful beansprout salad. I’ve never used the word ‘delightful’ to refer to anything featuring beansprouts before, as I’ve traditionally considered them an abomination. But there was nothing soggy or gritty about this salad; nothing so stringy you could floss your teeth with it. This was just supremely fresh and crisp, and the perfect foil to all the meat we were about to consume.
(I did take a photo of the salad, but it was crap, so I’ve left it out.)
The salmon itself was moist and full of flavour, but had a little bit too much soy sauce on it for my tastes. I don’t know what else to say about it, which probably says enough. I’m glad I ordered it, but I don’t think I would again.
While we were busy eating the fish, the beef arrived, cooked nice and pink in the middle and with wonderfully crisp fat. Going off its appearance, I was expecting it to chew like a rubber band, but it was so tender you could pull it apart with chopsticks and it melted in the mouth. Unfortunately, it was salted to the point of mummification, which held it back from being the dish of the night for me.
The rice, noodles and chicken came more or less together. A wanton dusting of black pepper spoiled the rice to the point of unpleasantness, but the noodles – with prawns, salmon, bok choi and assorted veg – were lovely. The chicken was every bit as gorgeous as I remembered it; so succulent, so juicy, and so, so, so addictive.
After we’d demolished the shichimi, it was time for the main event – the spicy whole sea bass**, which was stuffed with a leek, lightly battered and deep fried before being dressed with a spicy sauce. I don’t think there are many more exciting things in a restaurant than being presented with a whole fish to share, and this definitely looked the part: an angry monster fish, roaring up from a blood-red lagoon. Every diner in the restaurant turned their head as it was brought out; it was stunning.
If I’m honest, it didn’t quite live up to expectations. The meat was a touch overcooked and it didn’t pack the flavour I’m used to with sea bass. That said, the sauce was spot on and the crispy skin was incredible; there was a great big dose of happiness with each salty, crackly bite.
We’d eaten far too much food by this stage, but we still managed to polish the fish off, autopsying it until every shred of flesh was found and devoured. Despite the faults, I’m struggling to think of a single restaurant dish in Manchester which comes anywhere near this in terms of value for money. For £12, it’s an absolute cracker.
On the whole, this meal was a sizable step up from my first experience of Kyotoya. There were far more highs from the food and the lows were all fairly minor. There were no service issues to speak of and I’ve even grown slightly fonder of the dining room, thanks to a seat that allowed me to watch the kitchen and kept me out of the path of the hurricane winds which blow in under the door.
The improvements did come at a price. We visited at 6pm – too early for me – when the place was pretty much empty, and we spent around £6.50 more per head, although admittedly this was for far, far more food.
Nevertheless, I think it was a price well worth paying. Even at £20 per person, including wine and beers, Kyotoya is a bargain. And now I’ve revised its scores up, I make it the second best East Asian restaurant in the city.
Dining Room: 1.5/5
Overall score: 41/100 (OK)
*I should apologise for the standard of the images. I can assure you that in real life, the salmon didn’t look like the chicken and the sea bass wasn’t served on a plate of gore. At the moment, I’m just experimenting with photos using a crappy cameraphone. Once I’ve worked out what I’m doing – and whether it’s something I want to continue doing for my restaurant reviews – I’ll upgrade to a proper camera.
**Do bear in mind if you go and want the sea bass (they do a sweet and sour version as well), you’ll need to pre-order it.
Sometimes you come away from a restaurant struggling to work out where the meal went wrong. The food’s good, the service is good, the ambience is good – even the company is good – but the overall experience is pancake flat.
“Meh, it was OK,” you tell a friend when they ask you how it was afterwards – and you secretly hope they won’t press you to elaborate. Explaining why you don’t like something when you don’t really have a reason takes way too much effort.
Kyotoya, a tiny Japanese diner tucked away on a Withington side street, is not a restaurant that fits into this category in any way, shape or form. If truth be told, it’s actually the antithesis of all I’ve described.
Bear with me for the next few hundred words while I slag off the multitude of things it does wrong and try to explain exactly why it is that I can’t wait to go back.
Kyotoya reminded me a little of the cafe in Coronation Street, only Roy and Hayley have better taste in décor and they don’t arrange the tables to look like the aftermath of a fight between two sumo wrestlers. It’s small and drab and student canteen-y and if you end up sitting directly in front of the door like I was, you’re going to need to wear your coat for the duration.
The ‘service’ on offer made a mockery of the word. Each person’s dish was brought out separately, with what seemed like an age in between. My sister-in-law’s plate of six dumplings was empty by the time my sashimi platter rolled out. If a pregnant lady was this late she’d need to be induced.
The only thing you could rely on with the service was that the food would turn up at least 10 minutes after you started wondering how long it takes for starvation to kick in. Over the course of the meal we learned if you want something from the staff, the only way of getting it is to stand up, walk over to the counter and ask. If we’d waited for them to do the rounds, I think we’d still be there now, a week later, dying of malnutrition.
There were a few problems with the food as well. The tuna and salmon sashimi lacked flavour, the latter so much so that it tasted of nothing at all. My seafood yakisoba could’ve been named a vegetable yakisoba for all the fish it contained. Two rings of octopus, two small prawns and some incredibly tiny pieces of tuna do not a seafood dish make. You get more in a Spar economy fish pie.
Yet, while any of these issues alone would normally have me vowing never to return to a restaurant, and all of them together would typically leave me seething, I exited Kyotoya with a big smile on my face, looking forward to my next visit.
Why? Well, first off, besides the above, some really great food was put down on the table. The octopus sashimi was excellent; sweet, succulent, sublime. The prawn sashimi was almost as good; fresh as a daisy and gorgeous with a bit of pickled ginger and wasabi.
Chicken dumplings and salt and pepper spare ribs were several cuts above anything you’d expect to find in a joint like this. The noodles – between us we tried three different types – were all wonderful. Even the veg that dominated my yakisoba was good. The freshness of the ingredients and the clean way they’d been cooked – there was nothing greasy at all about this food – made me very happy indeed.
The star dish was chicken with garlic; a chicken breast that had been marinated – perhaps even poached – in coconut milk, with a garlic and soy dressing. It was beautifully moist and incredibly moreish and I was extremely envious that it wasn’t me who’d ordered it! It’s the best bit of chicken I’ve had all year.
The second reason I’ll be heading back is because it was so easy to put the service issues down to a culture clash and take them with a pinch of salt. The staff were supremely friendly, polite and generous. Asked if we could have another bottle of white wine, they said they only had a quarter bottle of it left, but we could have it on the house. While we sat waiting for the bill, they wheeled out complimentary plates of ice cream for us all. Small gestures, but ones that made me feel very welcome.
The third and final reason is the price. It was dirt cheap. The bill was the sort that makes you open your eyes wide in disbelief before checking through to make sure nothing has been missed off. 14 dishes (including the ice cream) plus a bottle and a quarter of wine and three beers came to £67.50. That’s £13.50 a head, a total steal given the quality of some of the dishes and the portion sizes. They gave the five of us more food than we could eat.
Kyotoya probably isn’t a place worth going out of your way for – I couldn’t imagine anybody coming away from it thinking that they’ve had a really special meal. However, the food is so good in parts that if you live in the area, you should definitely make the trip. At the very least, give their takeaway service a spin. If I lived around the corner, I think I’d be there every week.
Manchester’s not particularly well known for its Japanese food, but with certain dishes, Kyotoya might just produce the best the city has to offer.
And it does so at prices too good to miss.
Dining Room: 1/5
Overall score: 36/100 (OK)
(I revisited Kyotoya a few weeks later and upgraded its score. You can read the latest review here.)