Grab your sweetheart and slurp some seriously sublime noodles at KOA, a newly-opened restaurant in the Flatiron district that serves traditional Chinese dishes with a sophisticated Japanese twist. Located on a stretch of West 21st Street once notorious for rowdy nightclubs, KOA represents the neighborhood’s transition to a mecca for fine dining, so drop by on your next date night—or grab a few adventurous foodie friends—and experience the best of what’s next.
You’ll feel the excitement as you enter the sleek, modern space. It could be the well-dressed crowd or the uptempo music—the later it gets, the more beats per minute you’ll hear—but it probably has a lot to do with the team behind KOA. The kitchen is helmed by Yuji Wakiya, and if that name sounds familiar, you probably watch a lot of Japanese TV, because he’s the Iron Chef who specializes in Chinese cuisine (this is the first Chinese restaurant opened by a Japanese Iron Chef). The partners include Keiko Ono Aoki, widow of the enigmatic founder of the Benihaha empire, “Rocky” Aoki (DJ Steve Aoki’s dad, to any Millennials reading). So there’s definitely a glam factor that gives the place the buzz you’re looking for on a night out in New York.
But no restaurant can succeed on backstory alone. KOA delivers the goods with a playfully laid-back atmosphere—angled VIP-style banquettes, private alcoves, Edison bulbs, thick decorative ropes that resemble noodles, and chandeliers covered with iron birdcages—and an inventive menu of dishes centered on sorba. What’s sorba? It’s a light and flavorful noodle dish developed by Aoki and executed to perfection by chef Wakiya. Sorba essentially turns the concept of ramen on its head, providing a hearty portion of noodles and toppings with just a light amount of soup.
Unless you dined here during the soft open, it’s unlikely you’ve had sorba, so start with the Soymilk Dan Dan Sorba. It’s made with a creamy handcrafted Japanese soy milk called Tonyu, which is blended with soup stock that’s made in-house every morning with “back-breaking love and 75 gallons of ingredients,” according to partner Tora Matsuoka, who explained the idea behind the menu during a tasting for media. “It’s a play on the classic dan dan noodle, served with spicy ground beef and house-made spicy chili oil.” It’s also delicious, with different textures and flavors that come together in a satisfying crescendo.
While the sorba dishes aren’t exactly shareable, plenty of menu items are, particularly the crispy crab wontons. These perfect little dumplings are made with crab meat and Napa cabbage, dusted with coconut chili powder, and served with sweet and sour dipping sauce. And there’s even a delicate and flaky vegetable spring roll with sweet miso sauce. It arrives at your table cut in half, so you can split it with your date like the generous person you are.
KOA might not be a sushi bar, but they’ve still got a deep sake list to choose from—ask for one of the surprisingly tasty organic sakes from Oregon (that’s right, Oregon). If your tastes run to cocktails, the house special Flatiron goes down easy. This creative take on the Blood and Sand uses a blend of Monkey Shoulder Scotch, blood orange puree, and blood orange bitters, and it’s far more sophisticated than a juice-based cocktail has a right to be.
So kick back and enjoy the food, drinks, and sexy ambiance at this welcome new addition to the neighborhood. And if you find yourselves in the mood for a nightcap and a scene after your meal, Jay Z’s 40/40 Club is just a short stroll away.