CoCo Ichibanya has more than 1,100 restaurants in Japan and about 150 around the world, serving unusual curries such as sausage, hamburger, and tomato and asparagus.
Back home, it’s a household name, but it hasn’t ventured into Europe – until now.
The first UK outpost opened this week in London’s Covent Garden, where diners are already lining up. You choose a topping – including options such as fried chicken dumpling, kimchi or bubble-fried salmon – and then you pick the level of heat. The sauce options range from “standard” to “Level 5 Crazy Hot”.
But what will a classically trained Indian chef make of it all?
I invited along Vivek Singh, one of his country’s most-respected chefs, whose four UK restaurants include the Cinnamon Club.
Dine there and you might spend US$107 on a tasting menu featuring dishes such as Devon crab and kokum berry salad on lotus-root crisp.
“The menu is bonkers,” he says, and laughs. “I have never come across curry like this.”
But when we tuck into a Crazy Hot katsu chicken and cheese curry, he is at least partially won over.
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A post shared by CoCo ICHIBANYA (@cocoichibanyaph) on Oct 23, 2018 at 12:11pm PDT
“What I am really liking are the cheese cubes that have 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.
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With all the different topping options, we're always discovering a new favorite here at CoCo Ichibanya. Here's a suggestion, have you tried your CoCo Curry with a side of cheese? Takes it to a whole nother level! Tag someone who has to try this! Greate photo from: @deusep85 #CoCoIchibanyaPh
A post shared by CoCo ICHIBANYA (@cocoichibanyaph) on Sep 27, 2018 at 8:42pm PDT
“In terms of the sauce, Japanese curry is nowhere close in complexity or depth of flavour or progression of spices as it is in Indian cuisine. The base is always cornflour and the flavouring is coming from turmeric, coriander and chilli. These are three base spices in Japanese. And I taste a lot of coriander, and the other thing I taste is a lot of chilli. It’s quite hot.
“This could work in India as a Japanese restaurant, not a curry restaurant.”
The company opened its first restaurant on the outskirts of Nagoya in 1978. The first US mainland outpost opened in Torrance, California some seven years ago.
I enjoyed it a lot, too. With the recent arrival in London of both CoCo Ichibanya from Japan and Din Tai Fung from Taiwan, there are now two very good, popular, and inexpensive Asian restaurant chains to try.
17-18 Great Newport Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2H 7JE; +44-20-3904-5633; https://ichibanya.uk/.