Iron Chef Yuji Wakiya has quietly come back to New York City. The ‘Master of neo-Chinese cuisine’ is at the helm of KOA, a new Flatiron restaurant run by Keiko Ono Aoki, widow of Rocky Aoki.
Wakiya famously opened his eponymous restaurant in Ian Schrager’s Gramercy Park Hotel back in 2007. The restaurant opened to great fanfare but closed after a year – not so much for the food but for the cost of it. At KOA, Wakiya is focusing in on Shanghainese cuisine with influence from Japanese reverence and Chinese cooking technique. This, he is says, is how he is able to capture the essence of umami. A unique dish on offer at KOA is SORBA – a hand crafted noodle dish made with soymilk flown in from Japan. The concept is concept exclusive to this restaurant. The SORBA dish features a custom large bowl with a shallow amount of broth holding a healthy serving of noodles and toppings. The soup broth is house made daily utilizing Chef Wakiya’s secret recipe and that special soymilk. Exclusively owned by KOA and imported from Japan; Ko-Cream, the soymilk, is equivalent to an egg yolk or dairy cream and has 70% less calories than other creams used in the U.S. Ko-Cream uses an ultra soy separation process contributing to the enhanced “umami” (pleasant, savory taste) of food. As Chef Wakiya is known for legendary “umami,” his influence is shown in each dish.
The Art of Sorba was created by Keiko Ono Aoki. Before he opened Wakiya, Rocky Aoki approached the Iron Chef to partner on a noodle restaurant. The two never found time to work together but Keiko – CEO of Benihana of Tokyo –now at its 50th year, vowed to follow through on Rocky’s premonition.
Wakiya fans have been waiting for his return to the Big Apple. They won’t be disappointed with his work at KOA. The space is serene-chic. Vintage chandeliers and birdcages hang over tables in one area while a giant branch guards another area. Banquettes are strewn with pillows and a chef works behind the large central bar creating garnishes and prepping ingredients for house cocktails. Wakiya’s menu is thoughtful, creative and delicious. An off-menu mushroom soup served in a hallowed out lemon half quieted the table for the few minutes it took to eat. Other impressive dishes include the Shrimp Basil appetizer – a mix of crispy shrimp tossed in sweet and sour chili sauce topped with a basil aioli and sprinkled with radish shavings and the Hehe-a-He Chicken – a tajine of wok-fried, marinated chicken thigh meat, mixed with highly aromatic choten and takanotsume peppers. The signature SORBA noodles can be prepared with proteins like roast beef or lobster or simply with veggies. All menu items are cooked a la minute, traditional wok style, and can be seasoned to taste. Guests who prefer gluten free noodles, vegan or vegetarian options will be thoroughly satisfied with the menu options as well.
KOA has an impressive bar program with unique hand-crafted cocktails and an extensive wine, beer and sake menu. If you’re feeling adventurous, ask to have your meal paired with a series of sakes – you’ll taste some amazing ones.