Koh-ya Yakiniku Restaurant embraces many of the best aspects of Japanese culture: the delicious traditional cuisine, the welcoming hospitality, the elegant presentation and, yes, even the wacky, off-the-wall humour that often surfaces in Japanese cartoons and street culture. Koh-ya is a great place to share a meal, and even better if you have a group of people looking to be festive.
Which is why I chose Koh-ya to celebrate my birthday with a group of friends, not just last year but again a few weeks ago. This time when we fronted up at Koh-ya's Ann Street entrance (near Fortitude Valley's Chinatown Mall), I was ready to take notes and pictures to share with you.
Yakiniku' is the Japanese word for 'grilled meat', and yakiniku restaurants like Koh-ya have a brazier built into the middle of each table that allows you to barbecue your own meat (or seafood, or vegetables etc) at the table. Alternatively, you can order hot-pot dishes, and the staff will bring out a gas burner that fits over the brazier so that you have a little gas stove in the middle of your table instead.
Koh-ya does have an a-la-carte menu, with individual dishes ranging from under $6 for salads up to $33 for premier wagyu beef loin. But I've never tried anything from this menu, because Koh-ya is famous for its buffet deals and they are such fun for large groups.
Basically, for $39.90 per person (half price for vegetarians), you can eat as much as you like in 90 minutes. First, you must choose between the barbecue menu and the 'Nabe' (hotpot) menu. Once you've decided which of these you want, you look through the relevant buffet menu and choose a selection of dishes to share. Once you've chosen those, you write down how many of each dish you want on small slips of paper, hand them to the wait staff, and the fun begins.
This sounds straightforward, but it's different from the average restaurant, and it took our group a good half an hour (and lots of internal negotiations!) to come to grips with it the first time we went. Luckily, the very patient and friendly Koh-ya staff were happy to explain it to us (over and over again...), to fix up our ordering when we got the quantities wrong, and to just keep bringing more and more great food.
This time, we started with a range of entrées, including edamame (delicate salted soybeans in the pod), seaweed salad, kim-chi (spicy cabbage), tofu salad, and spinach and almond salad. All were great (and included in our per head price).
Next we moved onto hot-pot dishes from the Nabe menu. We had a large group spread over two tables, so two gas-burners were brought out. On top of each was placed a soup pot with a divider down the middle, so that each pot could hold two different stocks. We had four different stocks in total, including a vegetarian option and a spicy one (for the chilli-lovers).
Delicious things to add...
Then the feast really began: out came platters bearing our choices of vegetables, prawns, calamari, tofu, dumplings, wagyu beef, chicken, pork and more. Different people picked up various ingredients with tongs and popped them in the bubbling stock as the fancy took them. As things cooked, individuals chose what they wanted to eat and served them into their individual bowls. Along with rice and miso soup (also included in the per head price), this created a healthy, flavoursome, communal meal, which individuals could tailor to their likes and dislikes.
And some more...
When particular ingredients ran out, it was just a matter of filling in another slip of paper, hailing the staff, and handing the slip over. Provided you are still within 90 minutes of when you placed your original order, all 'second helpings' like this are included in the buffet price. All ingredients are of good quality and elegantly presented with Japanese flair (though the dumplings are frozen, not fresh, and do take longer than the other ingredients to cook).
On the other hand, drinks are not included in the buffet deal, and it's worth remembering that Koh-ya is licensed when you do your budgeting beforehand. Beverages here aren't cheap, but they are interesting, and include Japanese beer ($7.90), sake ($8.90), plum wine with soda ($6.90), and various Japanese softdrinks.
Along with food and drink, wait-staff and atmosphere are key elements of any restaurant experience. At Koh-ya, the staff are lively, friendly and helpful. The atmosphere is LOUD and happy, with frequent (and sometimes inexplicable) shouts of 'Hai' breaking out across the restaurant. Koh-ya probably isn't the place for a romantic dinner but, if you don't mind some rowdiness, it's great fun. And, if it's your birthday, the staff will come to your table in wacky disguises to sing happy birthday and give you high-fives (plus an ice-cream sundae).
Koh-ya is very popular on weekends and you need to book in advance for Friday or Saturday nights (when they have only two sitting times for the 90-seat restaurant: 6pm or 8.15pm). I'm not sure how busy it is other nights, but it would probably still be wise to book.
While Koh-ya is not as cheap as many other Asian restaurants, it's great for special occasions, and you get a wonderful taste of Japanese cuisine and culture for your money.