LONDON – Altogether CoCo Ichibanya, also known as “CoCoIchi,” has more than 1,100 restaurants in Japan and about 150 more around the world, serving up unusual curries such as sausage; hamburger; and tomato and asparagus.
Back in Japan it’s a household name, but Ichibanya hasn’t ventured into Europe until now.
Its first U.K. outpost opened last December in London’s Covent Garden, where diners are already lining up to try Ichibanya’s unique offerings. After choosing a topping (options include fried chicken dumpling; kimchi; or bubble-fried salmon) diners then decide the level of heat. Ichibanya’s sauce options range from “Standard” to “Level 5 Crazy Hot.”
But what does a classically trained Indian chef make of it all?
I invite along Vivek Singh, one of his country’s most-respected chefs, whose four U.K.-based Indian restaurants include The Cinnamon Club. Dine there and you might spend £85 (about ¥12,000) on a tasting menu featuring dishes such as Devon crab and kokum berry salad on lotus root crisp.
“The menu is bonkers,” Singh says, and laughs, of Ichibanya. “I have never come across curry like this.”
But when we tuck into a Crazy Hot katsu (fried chicken cutlet) and cheese curry, he is at least partially won over.
“What I am really liking are the cheese cubes that are melted into the sauce and are coming out every so often in strings and adding a lot of interest,” he says.
“The panko is very light. The chicken is not dry. You can see it has just been cooked. It has not been sitting around fried for a long time.
“In terms of the sauce, Japanese curry is nowhere close in complexity or depth of flavor or progression of spices as it is in Indian cuisine. The base is always corn starch and the flavoring is coming from turmeric, coriander and chili. These are three base spices in Japanese. And I taste a lot of coriander, and the other thing I taste is a lot of chili. It’s quite hot,” he continues.
“This could work in India as a Japanese restaurant, not a curry restaurant.”
CoCo Ichibanya opened its first restaurant on the outskirts of Nagoya in 1978. Its first mainland U.S. outpost opened in Torrance, California some seven years ago.
With the recent arrival in London of both CoCo Ichibanya from Japan and steamed bun specialist Din Tai Fung from Taiwan, there are now two very good, popular and inexpensive Asian restaurant chains to try.
CoCo Ichibanya’s London Covent Garden location can be found at 17-18 Great Newport St., Covent Garden, London, WC2H 7JE; www.ichibanya.co.jp/english