Level 5, Westfield Sydney, 188 Pitt Street, Sydney,

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Ippudo specialises in traditional ramen (soup noodle dishes) as well as more contemporary Japanese offerings.
Ippudo specialises in traditional ramen (soup noodle dishes) as well as more contemporary Japanese offerings. Photo: Dallas Kilponen

Terry Durack

What is it with ramen? There's been a heap of hype over the arrival of the Japanese ramen chain Ippudo. Food bloggers are crawling all over it, and the queues stretch halfway around the food court at the Pitt Street Westfield.

Shigemi Kawahara started Ippudo in 1985 in an effort to breathe new life into what was basically poor salaryman's fodder. Basing his ramen on the southern Japanese Hakata style, he built depth into the tonkotsu pork-bone broths, lightened the oiliness and smartened up the decor of his little ramen-ya.

Along came fame and fortune, and now there are 65 Ippudos in Japan and branchises in Taipei, Hong Kong, New York, Singapore, Shanghai, Seoul ... and Sydney.

Akamaru shinaji with flavoured egg and extra pork belly.
Akamaru shinaji with flavoured egg and extra pork belly. Photo: Dallas Kilponen

But what is all the fuss about? It's only ramen – elastic Chinese egg noodles in a milky tonkotsu broth of pork bones, cooked for hours until the marrow seeps from the bones, enriching and emulsifying. Sure, it's big, warming, comforting, and relatively cheap, but so is a velour tracksuit. And it's not as if Sydney is bereft of ramen. Fiercely loyal followers of The Broth argue the relative merits of Chinatown's Gumshara (heavy, collagen-rich, porky) and Ryo's in Crow's Nest (fresh, light, savoury). The main allure, it seems, is ramen's ability to be franchised. Let's not forget, Wagamama started as a ramen noodle canteen and has recently changed hands for a reported $324 million.

But back to Ippudo. Queuing in a food court is not everyone's idea of fun, but the system works and tables turn over fast. Then it's in past the clubby bar to an attractive space, all slatted wood and long benches, ringed with open kitchens full of swirling, whirling bandanna-topped chefs.

Ramen-wise, you have three choices: shiromaru motoaji (tonkotsu broth, noodles, vegetables and pork loin); akamaru shinaji (tonkotsu broth, miso, garlic oil, noodles, vegetables and pork belly); and karaka men (tonkotsu broth, spicy miso and minced pork).

The pale, milky shiromaru ($15) tasted like cream of mushroom soup. Not being a ramen nerd, I'm not sure if that's good or bad. The akamaru ($18) was bland, the broth thin, the single slice of pork belly uninteresting and the egg yolk pale and rubbly.

A second akamaru a week later has a denser broth, a glossier yolk, and more supple meat – and I was even asked to nominate how I would like my noodles cooked, something that's crucial in terms of texture and timing. Slow eaters should order al dente (katame) noodles, as they will continue cooking as you make your way through the bowl.

There are things other than ramen, including desserts, but they're not the point. Yellowtail sashimi ($12) was dull and murky, as was tsukune ($10), which came as chunky slabs of meatloaf, not meatballs. Pork steamed buns ($4) looked the part but had dry meat inside pappy steamed bread. Momofuku, your pork bun reputation is safe.

On the plus side, elegant little gyoza dumplings ($6) are enjoyable, and there's a bubbling hotpot of spicy tofu and minced pork ($10) that's hearty and moreish.

There's a safe wine list, but again, it's not really the point. Most diners drink beer or something soft, which is probably why a glass of red wine ($10) tasted as though it had come from a bottle opened some time previously.

So that's it. Ippudo is big, fast, noisy, crowded, communal and good-humoured. The ramen I've had there ranged from quite pleasant to not particularly interesting. Maybe it's the Hakata style. Maybe you need to add lots of extras. Maybe I'm not a believer. Or maybe, with ramen, near enough is good enough.

Since then, however, I've had a bowl of ramen that has turned me into a drooling, slurping convert. The dense broth shimmers with black oil so rich, it coats each noodle and almost sets in the bowl, yet the taste is light and pure and vegetal. It's not from a global restaurant chain, but a small Japanese restaurant in Elizabeth Bay called Blancharu, where chef Haru Inukai cooks just 30 bowls of Kyoto-style chicken-based ramen for lunch from Monday to Thursday. In his hands, ramen is a thing of beauty, of knowledge and timing.

Oh, now I get it. I just didn't get it at Ippudo.

The low-down

Best bit Frantic but good-humoured staff

Worst bit Everyone's too polite to slurp

Go-to dish Akamaru shinaji (tonkotsu broth with miso paste, garlic oil, thin noodles, pork belly, and black mushroom) $16, with flavoured egg ($2) and extra pork belly ($4)

How we score 

Terry Durack is chief restaurant critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and senior reviewer for the Good Food Guide. This rating is based on the Good Food Guide scoring system.

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Level 5, Westfield Sydney, 188 Pitt Street, Sydney,

  • 02 8078 7020
  • Cuisine - Japanese
  • Prices - About $50 for two, plus drinks
  • Features - Licensed
  • Owners - Shigemi Kawahara
  • Opening Hours - Daily, 11am to 11pm
  • Author - Terry Durack
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10 comments so far

  • Everything has a purpose. You could see Ippudo as a chain that reflects the region. Would this standard of ramen pass in other mature regions the answer is no. Because people have developed an awareness of what can be and much like you have do accept what can be passed off. You could also see it as a buffer where the uneducated masses can go and assume they getting great food because the queue says so. I see it around my area from bakery's to thai food and am gratefully my favourite spots are protected . Or you can see it as the platform for people to begin their journey . Who want to understand the complexities , layering of flavour , texture and smells . How the different combinations suit season , mood and human condition.

    Date and time
    January 29, 2013, 1:42PM
  • Tonkatsu? More like Katsu Donburi. Tonkatsu is crumbed fried Pork cutlet, served over shredded cabbage, with Kewpie Mayonnaise and Tonkatsu sauce drizzled over the top.
    Tonkatsu (Dry)
    Katsu Don (Wet)

    Date and time
    January 29, 2013, 3:03PM
    • The article says "Tonkotsu" not "Tonkatsu", they are two different things.

      Like Terry say's Tonkotsu is "a milky tonkotsu broth of pork bones, cooked for hours until the marrow seeps from the bones".

      Date and time
      January 29, 2013, 9:25PM
    • bibendum - what are you talking about? Tonkatsu and tonkotsu are two different things. The "ton" in both of them means pig (otherwise "buta" in Japanese, as in "kurobuta" or black pig). The "kotsu" means bone (otherwise "ho-ne" in Japanese). Interestingly, "katsu" is a contraction of the Portuguese word for cutlet, as it was the Portuguese who brought this dish to Nagasaki in the 1600s. So tonkatsu is "pig cutlet" and tonkotsu is "pig bone."

      Kyushu is famed in Japan for its pork dishes, having picked up the black Berkshire pig from the Ryukyu Islands where it was originally left by the East India company as a means of providing food for its sailors and as a relationship building gift to the local kingdom. The wild black pigs of Kyushu now provide us with buta no kakuni, tonkotsu ramen, tonkatsu and many other wonderful things.

      Anyway, I would never knock Terry's food knowledge or palate but I DO think that if you are reviewing a restaurant you should go into it with an idea of the cuisine, a knowledge of the dish and an understanding of the hallmarks of a good / bad version of the dish. Otherwise, you just kind of taste the dish, act like every dish is the invention of the shop you are in and tell the reader if it is "noice" or not. Take someone with you Terry! There is a lot more to Japanese food than face value!

      Kumamoto jo
      Date and time
      January 30, 2013, 5:58AM
    • tonkotsu=pork soup
      not to be confused with tontatsu=japanese style pork schnitzel

      I tried gumshara & ippudo, either tasted like the ramen I had in japan, but I preferred the one in ippudo better than gumshara. all depends on your personal taste I guess.

      Date and time
      January 30, 2013, 10:14AM
  • Without meaning to offend you Bibendum, best you spend some time looking up tonkotsu, as distinct from tonkatsu. Two vastly different things and as far apart in Japanese cuisine as could possibly be. One a method, consistent with how the Japanese strive for perfection and the other a fabulous 'fast food' albeit worthy of its place

    Date and time
    January 29, 2013, 6:39PM
  • I am well aware of Ippudo's reputation around the world and the ones in japan do ramen very well but why you would spend up to $20 for a bowl of ramen in sydney is beyond me. Sure, Sydney is an expensive city but it is also a city full of cheap and authentic ramen. Look around and you'll find them everywhere. Don't go to a place that is all about the hype.

    Date and time
    January 29, 2013, 8:30PM
  • @Bibendum The article is referring to Tonkotsu not Tonkatsu. Different things.

    Date and time
    January 29, 2013, 11:12PM
  • Significantly overhyped & expensive. The ramen noodles that was served to me was stuck together and for the price at $21 for the Karaka Men for a relatively serving was extremely expensive. I also added a further Nimatogo (egg) topping so the price of my undercooked small size ramen was $23!!! My partner had the Akamaru Chashu ramen for $20 plus some extra toppings for another $4 as the existing base ramen was minimal.

    I did enjoy the Ippudo Shrimp bun and the Goma Q (Cucumber in sesame sauce) but that's a small consolation for a highly overpriced meal costing us close to $80 for 2 including drinks when I can go to a number of ramen shops in the city like Gumshara, Ichiban, On Ramen & Menya (a few of my regular haunts) for consistent good quality for $20 per head.

    I also found the staff greeting over the top & insincere when you have non-Japanese staff screaming out "irrashaimase". When you have Japanese chefs & waiting staff doing it politely, it gives a very polite authentic welcome experience for the customer. When you have westerners doing it, it somehow comes across as crass and insincere.

    Cutie Yaya
    Date and time
    January 30, 2013, 12:46PM
  • It is good ramen but the decor and price are a bit weird for the dish. Maybe somewhere in the world someone is lining up to eat a $35 Mrs macs pie in a funky hip restaurant! What wine would you recommend with this "chiko roll"? Hahaha!

    Date and time
    January 30, 2013, 2:35PM

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