In his marvellous Momofuku cookbook – treasured even more for the stories than the recipes – David Chang talks about his youthful obsession with ramen and how at one stage it led him from a respectable middle-class life in America as a second-generation Korean immigrant with a theology degree from Connecticut’s Trinity College to bunking in a men’s hostel in a dodgy part of Tokyo as he pursued the Holy Grail of noodles.
While in no way thinking about upping sticks from Stately Prick Manor for the wilds of Japan, the Prick has lately and over the past few months had something of a revelation on the subject: Ramen, done right, can be transcendently good. And with a motley and assorted crew of mates, the Prick has been touring various Sydney ramen joints in a vague quest to find the best of the bunch.
Given investigations thus far that best may very well exist in a little corner of a Chinatown food court in the form of Ramen Ikkyu – a tiny little shop which itself may or may not itself be named after Ikkyu, the iconoclastic, boozy Buddhist monk of Japanese folklore known as both a heretic and saint. In other words, a pretty good role model.
Ikkyu’s business plan is simple and a bit iconoclastic in and of itself: Chef Harunobu Inukai, formerly of Blancharu, makes enough soup to turn out 150 serves a day. When it’s done, it’s done. His paitan broth, which is like a typical pork tonkotsu stock but tempered with chicken, would seem to reflect Inukai’s classical experience. The chief advantage of this style is that it adds back some of the aromatics and lightness of touch the collagen-rich broths of other favourites, such as Gumshara (amazing as it is), miss.
Other critics have made the point and it is indeed true: Ikkyu’s hand-made noodles are alive in a way that other ramen joints’ are not. There’s a bounciness to them, an energy and movement on the palate. And if you’ve got extra broth, you can go back for another helping of the things.
The accompanying pork cha–shu is likewise perhaps the best in the city, with a perfect ratio of meat to fat to maillard-ey char (45:45:10, for those keeping score at home). It is available as an extra by the plate of three or six morsels; one would be a fool not to go the six.
Thus Ikkyu’s ramen is a great bowl of soup – go the shoyu version kicked up with soy sauce is the Prick’s advice – and is right up there with the best in town.
But still it is still not perfect.
In his cookbook Chang makes the observation that everyone in Japan loves the ramen shop they grew up with, no matter its faults. When the Prick first read this observation, it was taken as a simple observation on human nature. But having dipped a toe down the rabbit hole it is more properly taken as a warning. The perfect ramen actually does not exist, at least not in this world, so don’t go looking for it.
And thus despite its delights the Ikkyu ramen has its failings, most notably the all-important tamago, or egg: On two separate visits the egg was first cold, then overcooked (and still cold), where it should be velvety and unctuous (here Gumshara laps the field).
Nevermind, the quest continues.
By way of background and perhaps fairness it should also be noted that the Prick’s interest in ramen first developed last year when the international Ippudo chain opened near the office, and at the time it was (naively) treated as something of a find – even if this site’s write-up at the time did note the hard and fast rule to “never eat at chains”.
To be honest, while early visits to Ippudo were all serenity and Miles Davis, the place has since changed. These days it is broths that range from rich to pellucid depending on the day. Serves of tamago forgotten in the bowl but never on the bill. Thudding music. And endless, manic yelling from the kitchen, the hostess stand, and throughout the restaurant: Arigatogozaymash-RAMENEEMAS!-Hooooooyu?-HOYUUUU!
Ippudo in Sydney now feels more like an American suburban restaurant chain’s interpretation of Japanese food culture – “Sumo Charlie’s”, perhaps? “TGI Noodles”? – than a proper ramen-ya.
When Ippudo opened it made quite a splash around town, but at the time Sydney Morning Herald critic Terry Durack refused to buy in, writing that the ramen was inconsistent and that he found the whole thing rather so-so … but he also added that the one ramen that made him a convert to the dish was that turned out by Inukai back when he was at Blancharu.
The Prick has often been critical of the Shaggy One’s style, but in this case, the man was right.