I love udon noodles! There’s something utterly compelling to me about these thick, white and slightly chewy Japanese noodles that other noodles just don’t match, though I’m a fan of pasta in pretty much all its forms. Recently launched restaurant Den describe themselves as udon evangelists’’ and their menu is suitably udon-heavy.
In King’s Cross, but quite a walk from the station, I suspect the location will most appeal to those who live or work in the area. For me, it’s actually quicker to travel a few extra stops into Central London, where most places are nearer to the nearest tube station – particularly appealing with it’s dark and cold or wet. The restaurant sits in a former pub, and the conversion is stark and modern, attractive though a little bare, perhaps.
The sleek communal tables will no doubt enable more diners to share the space when busy, but bench seating isn’t particularly comfortable. Then again, Den seems a short visit pit stop rather than a settle-in-for-the-evening kind of restaurant.
I visited on a really, really, really cold day so immediately asked which teas are available to warm myself up.
I enjoy a range of Japanese teas so I was a little disappointed that only a single option is available – Japanese green tea (£2). I’d have liked to choose from genmaicha, sencha/ gyokuro, houjicha and so on. Although the glass is very pretty, serving a very hot drink in such a thin glass makes it difficult to pick up until it’s cooled down a fair bit (unless you have asbesthos hands, which I sadly do not possess); I’d rather drink it when it’s hotter. And the glass doesn’t insulate its contents well so the tea is quickly too cool to enjoy. A ceramic cup would be better.
We (and other) guests were served a complimentary snack of deep-fried udon noodles, labelled as udon pretzels on the menu. These, as anyone who’s deep fried spaghetti can attest – what? it’s good! – were delicious.
Red wine stewed pork belly (£6) was my friend’s favourite tsumami (small plate). It’s long-braised and full of flavour. I liked it a lot, though oddly the meat wasn’t as tender as I expected, given that the fat had certainly become melt-in-the-mouth soft.
My favourite tsumami was seasonal vegetables in sesame sauce (£4.50) which, on the day of our visit, included beetroot, mange tout and green beans. These were an excellent combination of flavours and textures and the dressing, though not visually attractive, was delicious.
Crispy mackerel (£6) was sadly not crispy at all, not even a little bit. Soggy and slightly mushy, this dish was left uneaten on the table.
At this point, we had sufficiently warmed up that we were ready for a drink. Director, Cristoforo Santini (formerly at Matsuri St James) suggested the Nigori crème de sake (£5). Oh, this was marvellous, we both loved it! Unlike the more common clear sakes I’m used to, this one is unfiltered and thicker in texture. It’s also a touch sweeter, still with that wonderful distinctive sake flavour.
When it comes to the main affair, the focus is – of course – on udon. The menu divides into hot noodles in hot soup, hot noodles without soup and cold noodles with dipping sauce. For many of the hot soups, diners have a choice between black and white broth (with vegetarian versions also available). The non-vegetarian broths are both dashi – an infusion of katsuobushi (bonito flakes) and konbu (seaweed) with either a little soy (white broth) or a bigger dose of dark soy added. The vegetarian versions replace katsuobushi with mushrooms for the infusion. For some of the dishes, only a white broth is recommended, to better balance with the chosen toppings.
We shared salmon miso and chinese cabbage (£9), which was full of beautifully made udon noodles, soft salmon, cabbage still with a little crunch and lots of mizuna leaves (aka Japanese mustard).
Our other choice was a bowl of den Carbonara (£8), hot udon noodles topped with egg, katuobushi and nori. I couldn’t really detect the egg (I assumed it would be beaten and tossed through the noodles) but the simple flavours of katuobushi and nori worked well, with an added sprinkle of shichimi powder. And of course, this dish is a great way to really showcase the udon noodles, made in house.
Diners can also order from a short selection of donburi (rice bowls topped with various items) and there are also extra condiments, or toppings, available including crispy tempura batter (£0.5), natto (£1.5) and ume (£2). I didn’t spot the natto, but would definitely order it next time – the pungent sticky fermented soy beans pack such a punch of flavour.
There are no sweet options, not even a cleansing yuzu sorbet or matcha ice cream – the stalwart endgame of so many UK Japanese restaurants, and that’s a little disappointing. We are offered a fresh fruit plate (not listed on the menu) but decline. Perhaps a future iteration of the menu will introduce some dishes for the sweet toothed?
If you’re a fan of udon noodles, Den is a great place to enjoy them, though the location may prove off-putting to some – certainly it makes me less likely to drop by regularly, during the winter months.
Kavey Eats dined as a guest of Den Udon.