When Mr R’s birthday came around this year I wanted to treat him to something special. We only had 3 nights and 2 days free so I had to concentrate on finding somewhere fairly close to home to stay and for a mid-week celebration. The first 2 nights I booked in Cheltenham and set about securing a dinner reservation to kick off the miniature magical mystery tour I had planned for him. We visit Cheltenham fairly regularly, mainly because there are so many fantastic places to eat. We have a very long list!
I’d found myself recently recommending Koj to a chef over on Instagram, even though I hadn’t actually been there myself. I didn’t really know very much about it, just that it was a Japanese restaurant owned by MasterChef 2012 finalist Andrew Kojima. I remembered reading in the press about 12 months ago that Andrew, nicknamed ‘Koj’, opened his first restaurant 5 years after the show, and figured there wouldn’t be much hope in getting a table at the time. When I tried to book online for the Tuesday evening, the calendar showed they were full, but gave an option to send an email. I’d got it into my head now that this is where I wanted us to go so I pinged the email over anyway and 2 minutes later I got a call straight back. The lady on the phone said if we were to arrive 15 minutes later then they could fit us in. Done!
Our trip got off to a very good start after checking into our hotel and being upgraded to the suite. I had also booked us lunch at 2 Michelin star, Le Champignon Sauvage the next day, so as long as our dinner at Koj was good then I’d done pretty well for the boy. In fact David Everitt-Matthias named Koj as one of the best restaurants in Gloucestershire in a recent article for The Telegraph – this I couldn’t ignore! As we approached the building Mr R was pleasantly surprised with my choice and we were both very excited about the evening. We were seated immediately in the small restaurant and began to browse the menu, noticing (to my delight) that there wasn’t a scrap of sushi listed anywhere. We were treated to a complimentary sake each as a birthday treat, and I followed up with a couple of exceptionally good cocktails, which went down maybe a little too well.
Back to the menu which begins with appetizers leading onto a selection of grazing dishes, buns, rice and sides. If you can’t decide then go for the Omakase (meaning ‘I entrust you’) set menu, which gives you a plentiful 2 appetisers, 2 buns, 3 grazing and 2 sides for £56. This also gives you a good idea of how much you should be ordering if like us you fancy the sound of just about everything. We started with a simple appetizer of Edamame, seasoned with sea salt and garlic oil (£4). The tasty soy beans arrived hot and fresh, they were the perfect introduction to our Japanese grazing experience at Koj. We got a little carried away ordering from the main menu and somehow we regrettably overlooked the chef’s counter specials which change every week. Tip: don’t overlook the chef’s counter menu, especially if you are a regular customer as you’ll miss out on something new and exciting.
In tapas style everything came out when it was ready and was freshly cooked. I’d heard great things about Koj’s soft shell crab tempura buns (£6). The pork belly buns (£6) also appealed to us so we had one of each. I’d read Jay Rayner’s praising review when he visited just after the restaurant had opened, although I couldn’t disagree with him more about his experience of the hirata buns. A new and improved recipe maybe? The buns were gloriously fluffy and light, yet held the contents securely inside. The soft texture and sesame flavour was present, but allowed the lightly battered crab, pickled fennel and yuzo mayo to take centre stage. Oh how I adore fennel. The pork belly had been slowly cooked, retaining its moisture and flavour, without being fatty and the sauce not too sweet. The spicy pickled kimchi gave a crunch to each bite and the kimchi mayo was a new and delicious experience. We couldn’t decide which one we liked the best, there wasn’t a clear winner.
Our grazing dishes began to emerge and we worked our way through the Miso roast cod (£10), Koj fried chicken (£10) and beef tataki (£10). Our only side being the mayo rice (£3) with garlic butter and house mayo – a bowl of sticky, garlicky steamed rice with a smooth sauce, which left us wondering ‘why on earth haven’t we tried this before’?. The cod and beef were incredible, and although light dishes, enough for a decent helping when sharing between 2. Fried chicken is something Mr R and I aren’t usually in to, but there are exceptions so we tend to order carefully. This was worth the risk, especially dipped in the sesame mayo which came on the side. I’d recommend giving the chicken a try as it’ll be some of the best you’ve had.
The appetiser, 2 buns, 3 grazing dishes and 1 bowl of rice was enough for 2 people and we felt comfortably full. However we also felt we wanted more (we were celebrating after all), so ordered another portion of Koj fried chicken and another round of buns. Needless to say I could hardly move by the time we’d finished and there definitely wasn’t room for one of the yummy desserts which were offered to us after finishing our second meal. Unable to walk very far for a sometime we made our way upstairs to check out the cocktail bar, where we found ourselves ordering a Japanese whiskey each, just to help with digestion of course. After our first drink Andrew Kojima appeared, as it was near to closing, and he kindly took the time to chat to us for a while. When he asked what we had eaten we explained that we enjoyed the food so much we ordered it twice. ‘Koj’ replied with ‘oh you’re that table’, which we took it as quite the compliment as should he.
Everything about our dining experience at Koj was superb. We loved the relaxed and fun atmosphere to the restaurant which felt welcoming and there was a real ‘open to all’ vibe about the place. The food was comforting, flavoursome, well-cooked and creative – in fact so good we ordered it twice. It was lovely to meet the man himself and it was an unexpected honour for him to dedicate so much of his time to chat with us. Andrew Kojima is a very passionate chef who in my opinion is doing something different, and is really pushing the boat out. His food stands out in Cheltenham which is no mean feat amongst some tough competition. Koj is about experiencing what Japanese food has to offer beyond sushi and it’s a journey you’ll not want to miss out on. Yoi shigoto o tsudzukemasu (hope I got that right).
Cost: £71 (food only)
1 appetiser, 4 grazing, 4 buns, 1 rice
Cheltenham, United Kingdom – last visited in April 2018
Food hygiene rating – very good 5/5 – date of last inspection 23rd March 2017