Koj can be found on Regent Street in Cheltenham, a rather unassuming looking road at first, but you can a smorgasbord of great food on this street – The Cheeseworks, Fat Toni’s, Kibou, The Coffee Dispensary, The Find, Bills, Carluccio’s and more. Koj began life as a pop-up, then after what must have been successful trials, became a permanent fixture on Cheltenham’s restaurant scene. Koj is the first restaurant to be opened by Andrew Kojima who, believe me, has the credentials to do so after having worked at some top restaurants such as Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. Koj is also a Crowd Funding success story and you can see the aliases of the sponsors on boards decorating the restaurant.
Koj’s opening hours are a little limited (not a dig), but after months of leaving it too late when trying to book, we finally got our acts together and figured out a date well in advance when the four of us we were free. We’d only heard great things and the mostly all 4 and 5-star reviews on Trip Advisor helped back up that eating here must be a memorable experience.
Upon arrival, we parted curtains and were politely shown our table. It is a small restaurant that is really quite beautifully simple inside and features a fun mural of Japanese pop culture on the wall. The open kitchen adds a reassuring confidence as you can see most of the kitchen and chefs at work.
The menu looked great with a choice of appetisers, buns, grazing dishes, sides and Chef’s counter specials. We were told that a couple of appetisers, 2 or 3 grazers, a bun and 2 sides would be enough for 1. We decided not to go for quite the whole-hog and instead ordered the following between 3 of us:
We also ordered our drinks, an excellent mulled wine sake to share, two beers and white wine. The waiting staff were friendly and informative. Their knowledge of the menu was fantastic and they helped us choose a variety of dishes.
First to arrive was the leek and pepper appetisers. As there’s a grazing food concept at Koj the portion sizes are understandably ‘tapas-sized’ and these appetisers both were really nice and were pretty well proportioned. Personally, I found the peppers quite salty, but they were supposed to be… it just wasn’t to my taste but we all loved the slightly charred flavour.
Next, we had our buns. All looked fantastic and smelt amazing. For Helen and I, they instantly reminded us of being back in Hong Kong on our honeymoon, in an amazing restaurant called Little Bao (read about it here). My Koj bun was the beef cheek. It was soft and fell apart although there were a lot of mushrooms inside (front-right). Helen said hers was tasty but not the best softshell crab she’s ever had (back). Kerry really enjoyed her crispy lamb bun (front-left) and I loved the way it looked, all curled up inside the bun.
Next came the grazing dishes. In the photo below, starting from the very top-middle and moving clockwise we have; the pork, sprouts, venison, salmon, fried chicken, tuna salad and more fried chicken (yup, we doubled up on that one).
The pork was lovely. It was a good cut, lightly fried on a light salad served with mustard. The venison was fantastic, thinly sliced medium-rare pieces of the meat-lovingly laid out with pear and rocket. The tuna salad was a bit strange. It was quite fishy, probably the fishiest tuna I’ve ever had and I couldn’t tell where it came from; it could have been freshly cooked and flaked or lifted from a can with a dressing.
The Koj Fried Chicken (or KFC) was delicious. It wasn’t oily at all and the meat was really moist and perfectly cooked. It always a relief to have fried chicken that tastes good and doesn’t leave too much grease on your fingers.
This is the salmon which was roasted with miso. It was, like the chicken, perfectly cooked and amazingly light and flaky. I really enjoyed it with the miso, everything just worked and I’ll be trying this at home.
These pomegranate sprouts we delicious. The fruit and vegetable mix worked really well and complemented each other well. I loved the char on the vegetable and they weren’t overcooked in the slightest which gave them a crunch without being too hard.
I enjoyed my food. The speed at which it came out was perfect, not too fast or slow. The atmosphere was good too, with the restaurant being full on the floor we were on. So after we had finished all our mains we moved on to dessert…
- Yuzu posset
- Sticky toffee pudding
As you can see, the desserts looked great. My posset was light, creamy and worked really well with the sesame seeds. I’m biased toward anything citrus and I would have it again. The sticky toffee pudding was tasty too, although I think there was a bit of a burnt area underneath which gave a slightly bitter flavour for half of the dish. The Tiffin was delicious; with chocolate and full of different textures and treats. I know Kerry really enjoyed it, although would’ve liked more.
So that was our meal. Some of it excellent, most of it good, and bits OK. However, discussing the food around the table after finishing we decided that we weren’t sure why everyone raved about it so much. It was nice… but it wasn’t amazing. And I honestly don’t want to be mean but I’m not sure I’d go back based on the food alone. I would probably go back for drinks upstairs though.
Now for the main issue, and again, I don’t want to be mean, but when the bill came it felt extortionate. I don’t think we had that much food, and we didn’t have as much as the waitress suggested and it still came to about £45 each. You might be thinking that £45 isn’t bad, but it wasn’t all amazing and we really didn’t have that much. For example, the grazing dishes are all £9. I think that’s steep for 5 small bits of chicken or a small slice of salmon.
You might also be thinking “you just don’t like paying that much for food”, but that’s not true because I’ll happily pay a lot more for something really special. Lumiere, near the bus station in Cheltenham, is so good, it’s more traditional and you will pay more, but my experiences there have always been exemplary.
Lastly, service charge! Now this really riles the three of us (plus Mike who wasn’t there that night). I get it – adding a service charge for the staff is a kind thing to do (as long as they get it of course which I’m sure they do at Koj). But let me decide if the service was good enough to tip or not, and definitely, don’t add 12.5%. I hate this new custom of thinking it’s OK to add 12.5%. It seems like a way of shaming people into paying more than they probably feel comfortable paying. Most people wouldn’t ask for the service to be removed because it embarrassing to them. And, like I said I get it, it’s a way of getting more consistent money into the business for the staff, I just really don’t agree with it.
After paying the bill we went upstairs to have a look at the bar. It’s a really great room and area to go and have a drink. However, there are a lot of tables up there and none of them were being used which was a touch annoying… so why is the restaurant always full if there are so many unused tables upstairs?
So, would I go back? I’m sorry, I wouldn’t. It pains me to say this because I love local business and local food, but it just didn’t feel special enough for what we paid.