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