Noodles is the New Sushi
KOA NYC and Toranosuke Matsuoka, the Sumo’s SonBy Rigche Ma
KOA spells the initials of Keiko Ono Aoki, who also coined the concept for ‘Sorba’ – KOA’s trademark type of noodle dish, served in large bowls, with toppings in a small amount of special broth made of handcrafted soymilk, exclusively flown in from Japan, which in New York, can only be found at KOA.
Created by internationally acclaimed Iron Chef, Yuji Wakiya, the eight and growing number of Sorba choices on the KOA menu are decidedly Chinese, but with a very strong Japanese influence. Indeed, Wakiya spent the greater part of his life studying Chinese cooking, which he filtered through a Japanese focus on technique, execution, selection of choicest ingredients and dedication to perfection. The rich and milky soup base of Sorba is a jealously guarded secret requiring 15 hours of brewing and over 80 pounds of ingredients (not including liquid) daily, to bring out real depth and flavor.
However, the inspiration for KOA really began with Hiroaki ‘Rocky’ Aoki, Keiko’s other half and the man who founded Benihana Inc., which owns and franchises more than 116 restaurants and flagships around the world. Rocky had inordinate foresight, and famously said to his wife, ‘‘Noodles is the new sushi’’. That said, Keiko honored his memory with the realization of KOA.
She approached Toranosuke Matsuoka, young restaurateur and owner of Sen, NYC’s then newest swanky sushi joint, and outpost of the successful Sen in Sag Harbor. Son of a Jewish artist mother and a champion Sumo wrestler father who enjoyed a second career as a restaurateur after retirement from the first, Tora is unassuming and articulate. At 13, his father summoned Tora to the restaurant to work during school breaks, and gave his assignment saying, ‘It is an honor to wash dishes. You have not earned the honor yet, so you must begin by scrubbing the basement.’
So Tora progressed steadily through the ranks of the internal restaurant hierarchy over many summers. Trained by the former Sumo to have a respect for hard work and a gutsy, unbeatable spirit, Tora also found a genuine passion for hospitality and restaurant management. On the day of high school graduation – Tora ranked a dubious 186 of a 187 cohort, he became manager to his father’s restaurant. By 21, Tora was able to buy his father’s share of the restaurant with ten times the initial investment, and he has never looked back since.
When Keiko presented the idea of KOA, Tora’s instincts immediately spotted the potential for quality noodles served in the right ambience, especially to meet the demands of the new breed of young and affluent New Yorkers – who, perhaps, like himself, dare to enjoy life’s offerings.
The three-way partnership between Keiko, Wakiya and Tora proved to be a winning strategy, with the grounds of concept, expertise and operational know-how all covered. Barely three months old, KOA is already a darling within its three blocks radius, with plans to expand its tuft to another outlet in midtown, as early as next year.
For now, the first and only KOA is located at 12 W 21st Street, in the Flatiron district. The bar also serves specialty cocktails mixed with premier handcrafted soymilk.