Let me tell you a tale of fried chicken.
I was in a good mood, the sort when someone stops you in Queen Street to tell you your hair looks good. And if it soon becomes obvious they’re trying to get me to sign up to something, you still have to take the wins where you find them.
Downstairs from Buffalo in Windsor Place, the emphasis at Koi No Yokan is on that after-work drinks and small plates feel. The menu is small and appealing, so obviously I’m the perfect person to review, being neither.
There are nice touches here, from the nod to Lost In Translation as you enter and splashes of bold pinks, reds and turquoise. A lengthy Japanese spirits and cocktail list and a smattering of beers (what’s the plural here- Hitachinos? Hitachini?) places this firmly in fashionable izakaya territory. Water is poured as standard: vegetarian and vegan choices are plentiful, as are gluten-free picks. As I said, nice touches.
Whatever your preference, youve been thought of. Smaller plates top out at £7: almost all are meat and gluten free. A short menu of bao follows suit, with fillings including jackfruit, grilled plantain and katsu fried Tofu. There’s the promise of ‘late night ramen’.
Miso-glazed corn ribs might lack the chargrilled smoky sweetness of the best local examples and are decent enough, but there’s a lovely light touch to the potsticker gyoza. They are an essay in exactness, a lovely fleeting suggestion of crisped edges before the ooze of mushroom pureé hits. Delicately lovely.
There’s real precision here, which makes what comes next puzzling.
I’m a sucker for fried chicken. There are some variable examples locally, the absolute pinnacle being at Pontcanna’s Thomas. This bowl starts encouragingly, with a liberal dousing of kewpie and sriracha lacing batter which is nothing short of exemplary, with a shattering crunch and not a hint of grease.
The chicken could be cut a little thicker to ensure it stays plump and juicy, but that’s the tiniest of quibbles. No, the let down here is the seasoning. The already well-salted batter has been finished with a liberal final salting which tips the while thing over into excess. Big, fat flakes of sea salt are everywhere, obliterating everything. It’s a crying shame, as at first I thought this could be a contender for best in the city centre. It’s as if they think I’m a giant slug and they’ve got it in for me. And I know what you’re thinking: it’s an easy mistake to make. I forgive you. That good mood hasn’t lasted long.
I tell my server. He accepts my feedback very graciously and promises to speak to the kitchen. I’ll pop back later this week and try it again, I tell him. Anyone can have an off day.
A couple of days later, I come back. A Dai Dai Hirachino IPA is a good idea, in the way lunchtime drinking always is unless you’re an ambulance driver or tree surgeon. A bowl of buckwheat noodle yakisoba (£9) is advertised as Welsh cockles and prawns. I don’t detect any of the former but the latter are plump and well done, the red cabbage and noodles still carrying good bite. So far, so good.
A second bowl of that fried chicken is a revelation. It has been drastically redesigned, the pieces cut shorter and thicker and the seasoning pared right back. The sauces are now served separately in little dipping pots. And it’s impeccable: well flavoured, juicy, and with not a hint of grease. By any criteria, it’s excellent. It’s exactly what it should be and better than I dared hope. I’m glad I gave it another chance. I’m looking forward to telling people about this, I think. This is worth tracking down as a priority.
My server is keen to know what I think this time round. I tell him how what a huge improvement this new version is and ask him to tell the kitchen just how good it is. His face brightens. And quite right too. Anyone who has ever worked service knows that buzz. The owner, working in the background, overhears my praise and explains the kitchen is still finding its feet. They’re certainly getting something right, I say: that’s a hell of a bowl of chicken, and so much better than last time. He passes along my compliment and a note to the kitchen to watch the salt.
Because it is just so good, I order another immediately: another bowl of what is pretty much flawless fried chicken. The chance is too good to pass up.
And then. Ah, if only I had left it there.
This one, ten minutes after the first, is heavily over-salted. Not to the same vicious levels of the first bowl, but certainly far more than the one demolished just moments earlier. That flurry of salt flakes is back, despite the liberal sprinkling of nori powder. The sriracha and kewpie are served in their third alias, this time ready-mixed. It’s deflating. And I feel shitty telling them their triumph is short-lived.
So what to make of two meals here? Well, consistency is something all kitchens strive for and this one, I’m sure, will get there soon. There’s clearly someone here who can get things right. Not just right, but do it very well indeed. If you were to be served my second bowl of chicken, you’d be happy. Very happy indeed.
I’m sure there will be people who will rave about this menu. You’ve read it a thousand times: one visit, enthusiastic praise, cut and paste from last week. Count those sweet, sweet clicks. People who never seem to have a bad dish, let alone a bad meal, in the name of ‘supporting hospitality.’ Hint: ‘supporting hospitality’ is not the same as telling everyone that everything is great.
But that’s the problem. The usual ‘one visit hot take’ review has flaws. If I’d written after one visit, the headlines would have been grim. The first part of my second? So much better. Second visit, part two? Well, you’ve know the answer, don’t you?
A tale of mixed fortunes, then, to put it mildly. There’s potential here. That’s not in doubt. The idea here at Koi (No Yokan) is certainly an attractive one: but the reality needs some diligent groundwork to get those essential basics right. If they can nail that, thia will be a city centre highlight.
Still think my haircut looked alright, mind.
Koi (No Yokan), 11 Windsor Pl, Cardiff CF10 3BY
Monday 12pm–12am Tuesday 12pm–12am Wednesday 12pm–12am Thursday 12pm–12am Friday 12pm–2am Saturday 12pm–2am Sunday 2pm–2am
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This blog is a very simple thing.
I won’t try to sell you any hand lotion, exercise programmes, coffee syrups or Patagonian nose flutes. You won’t find tips on dating, ‘wellness’ or yoga mats.
I write because I love it (and food, as indicated by my increasing girth). Greed happens to be my Deadly Sin of choice, but at least it is never shy of providing me with subject matter.
A simple thing, then: all you get is me wittering on semi-coherently about places I’ve eaten at; hence a ‘restaurant blog’ rather than a ‘food blog’, although there are a few recipes scattered throughout.
From mezze to Michelin ‘fine dining’ and all points in between.