Opened many moons ago by proprietor Mari Kure, it’s eeked out a living for the best part of two decades.
After arriving in Ludlow from Japan, via California, in 2000, Mari was part of the great wave of successes that made the south Shropshire market town the gastronomic capital of rural England.
And her story gives hope to all of Shropshire’s independent restaurateurs. For 17 years, her modest, refectory-style eating house has thrived. The intimate Japanese diner has earned plaudits from Michelin and Harden’s. And while others have come and gone, Mari has stuck to her guns and stayed true to her roots. She’s continued to serve the food that she knows and loves to a small but appreciative band of locals. She has done remarkably well and provided a lesson for many others.Don’t mistake Koo for being a follower of foodie fashion. It avowedly is not. While others might jump on culinary bandwagons that favour this and that, Mari cooks from the heart. Rice, noodles, fish and shellfish, various sea and land vegetables and cooked with roots, fruits, egg, beef, pork and chicken in a distinctively Japanese way.
It makes for deliciously tasty and healthy eating. Packed with lip-smacking umami flavours, Koo serves some of the healthiest food in Shropshire. With little dairy, it’s more varied and better balanced than most menus, offering food that is low in colesterol, fat and calories, and high in fibre. With a diet that good, it’s no surprise that Japanese life expectancy is the highest in the world.
Koo is an unspectacular restaurant. There’s no needless ornamentation or ostentatious furnishings. It’s all cool, calm and collected – striking colour and simple chairs and tables, with wall hangings adding a little drama.
Mari was absent when my friend and I visited for a midweek supper – something to do with an unseasonal cold – but her team did her proud. A tall waitress was charming and polite, making conversation and keeping the drinks flowing as we tucked into a four-course set menu.
We started with sushi, the beloved traditional Japanese dish of seasoned rice wrapped in seaweed, with seafood and vegetable fillings. It was delightful. A portion of soy sauce added savoury seasoning, small dots of wasabi added heat – hilariously so in the case of my friend who ate too much in one go and suddenly morphed into the human version of Vesuvius – while slices of pickled ginger added a zing, zang, palate-cleansing hit of heat and sour. The sushi was well made and rolled as tightly as Rod Stewart’s pants.
Our second starters were equally good. I opted for king prawn tempura with a pot of sweet chilli dipping sauce while my friend – now recovering from WasabiGate – ate chicken and sweet potato cakes with teriyaki sauce, or ‘tsukune’, as they’re known in Koo’s kitchen.
All were supremely good. The tempura that encased the plump, slightly salty prawns was golden and crisp. It cracked like a bullet when we bit into it. The salad was well seasoned and the chilli dip was a delight. The tsukune was just as good. With generous amounts of chicken and just a little sweet potato, it was basted in tasty teriyaki sauce, delivering flavour bombs in a perfectly-formed package. D.Lish.
One of the beauties of Japanese food is that in addition to avoiding dairy, it also avoids unnecessary carbs. We ate a little rice during the evening, but otherwise we enjoyed super massive flavours alongside delicious meat and salad. Neither of us suffered ‘food baby syndrome’ after our dinners. They were light, flavoursome and probably very nutritious.
Mains were great. My friend opted for crispy pork in a sesame sauce with a small portion of rice while I opted for pepper and mirin chicken with the same accompaniments. I think we’d both intended to share our dishes when they arrived – before deciding they were too good and manfully working our way through our own portions instead.
The pork, my friend said, was crispy and moist with the accompanying sauce offered an Anthony Joshua-style punch of flavour. The chicken with mirin and pepper had pleasant heat and bags of I’d-eat-that-again-right-now savouriness. The rice was suitably sticky and the salad nicely dressed. They were accompanied by a small side of Japanese vegetables, including lotus roots, green beans and edamame beans. “Don’t eat the edamame bean shells,” my friend told me. “They’re furry.” Thank heavens for tree-chopping, he-men with a working knowledge of Japense veg. The beans inside, incidentally, were delightful.
Desserts were OK, nothing special. We both ate a small square of bean cheesecake, which was creamy and somehow wrong after what had gone before. A bowl of pickled coconut was a little odd without the star quality of our starters or mains. It was a pleasant if unspectacular way to end the evening. We skipped plum wine and green tea, though my friend kept himself topped up with Sapporo Beer, and thoroughly enjoyed our food.
The ambience in Koo is also noteworthy. The dining room features plenty of closely-packed tables, giving it an easy-going and informal feel. Guests tend to exchange smiles and conversation as they pack themselves in on the wooden seats. It has the air of a cool café, rather than a restaurant, which is to its credit. And with reasonable prices, there’s really nothing about it that isn’t enjoyable.
Koo has done remarkably well to survive the ever-changing Shropshire restaurant scene for 17 years. Modest and unprepossessing, quiet – sometimes a little too quiet – and humble, it offers delightful, healthy, flavour-licious food at fair prices in congenial surrounds. Mari Kure is one of the county’s unsung foodie heroes – and hopefully she’ll keep her success story at Koo going for many more years to come.