Koya. A small restaurant on Frith Street known for its Japanese Breakfast. Interesting because I had never had breakfast at a Japanese restaurant before and couldn’t help but wonder why. The concepts of having breakfast and eating Japanese food seem to clash for some reason. It’s silly because Japanese people must have breakfast, and yet I’ve never actually pictured it before or noticed it as particularly present in the media I’ve consumed.
The pervasive imagery of a Japanese person eating is seldom set in the morning time. It is always of someone getting something on the run, opening a bento box for lunch, stuffing their faces at ramen joints, or eating fresh sushi at a bar. The most represented scenes are of characters returning home after a long and difficult day, to the welcome comfort of a home-cooked feast.
Rarely breakfast though. Even the breakfasts I can recollect from anime seemed oddly Western, like the bacon and eggs from Howl’s Moving Castle or the pancakes in Your Name. Whilst looking through my list of London restaurants to visit, Koya suddenly became the only place I wanted to go to eat my next morning meal.
It was the morning after watching the Lion King at the Lyceum. After the comedown from the performance, I realised that I was slightly underwhelmed by it. The musical was not as laced with nostalgia as I expected it to be. The music felt lacklustre, the stage seemed less large and enveloping, sparse in places, like COVID had sucked the life out of it in some way. There were moments of brilliance though, actors and scenes that were outstanding, but it didn’t feel the same as it did when I was younger. The people around me still seemed to enjoy it well enough, and so did Maddy, but I clapped more in appreciation of the craft than the pure enjoyment I’d felt previously. As we left, I reminded myself of what was next on the agenda and couldn’t help but smile at the food in my future.
We woke up gingerly and headed straight to Koya for around ten. It was packed when we got there, so we were offered a place outside. Pre-COVID Leander would have decided to come back later to sit inside, where it looked warm and comfortable. The new normal Leander didn’t mind sitting outside too much – at least until the chill of autumn leaving reminded me how cosy it looked through the windows.
The table we sat at was tiny. The stools were a tad unbalanced because of the inconsistency of the sidewalk. I began to wonder if I had made a mistake. A few people decided to leave just as the waitress gave us our menus. I fought the urge to insist on being let in for no other reason than commitment.
While I’d normally survey the menu and choose several dishes to try, I had only really come here to eat the dish called ‘Japanese Breakfast’. Yes, the whole menu at that time was geared towards meals for that time of day. If I did the usual, it still would have meant me eating a Japanese Breakfast. But I thought that Koya would not have chosen that name if it was not the quintessential Japanese breakfast – a full English, but Japanese.
The barley ice tea I ordered on a whim reminded me of the whisky I drank as a teenager. Expensive whisky that was borrowed from my friend’s father’s cabinet while he was away. Since the alcohol was too strong and we did not know what a mixer was, we diluted it with cold water to make it easier to consume. I used to convince myself that it was okay because that was, and is, how my granny drinks her malt tipple. The same flavour, without the alcoholic buzz and aftertaste, light and refreshing.
Maddy loves her udon, so she ordered one of the noodle bowls. She chose the kitsune because she knew it from a podcast as a name for nine-tailed foxes in Japanese folklore: a mystical and spiritual bowl of soup, noodles and tofu.
The kitsune did justice to the magic of its name through its umami-rich dashi. It was well balanced, tasty, and of the right temperature to slurp without burning. The tofu was tactile and sweet, the udon bouncy and wholesome, complete with the spring onion crunch.
My Japanese breakfast, the main event, did not disappoint. In fact, it was totally delicious. Fluffy, steaming short-grain rice beside a crisp marinated mackerel that was still smoky from the grill. People may cringe at the thought of fish at breakfast, a part of me certainly did, but each morsel made a consistent and persuasive argument that had me utterly convinced by the end.
I ordered a milky poached egg in addition. Its amber yoke atop the rice, once punctured, added welcome richness. The accompaniment of miso soup was pertinent with its warmth and briny-sweet funk. There were pickles too, sweet and tangy, ingeniously included to cut through the fat and savour. Every aspect of the assortment was harmonious and well thought out. I was glad I trusted Koya to make these decisions for me.
Our lack of practice with chopsticks made our eating slow and appreciative, as well as more than a little frustrating. I was hungry, and the food was incredible, so my fumbles emphasised how long out of the food game I’d been. Not visiting restaurants and eating out as consistently I once did means I’ve missed places like Koya.
My mind and my belly realised fullness simultaneously for once: which is a comfortable experience when I’m so used to being utterly stuffed before I put the fork – in this case, the chopsticks – down. It was one of those that made us smile and readied us thoroughly for the busy day ahead. There was the Kings of Convenience matinee to look forward to, stand-up comedy in the evening and a lot of walking in-between.
Koya is where I’d recommend you go to dip your toes into something truly different and contrary to strongly held western conceptions of what it means to have breakfast. It was a warm hug on a cool day. A reminder that there is much pleasure to be found in the new.
Location: 50 Frith Street London W1D 4SQ