We enlist Momofuku chef David Chang, known noodle enthusiast, to give us his take on Sydney's most pored-over bowls of ramen. Pat Nourse joins him, spoon in hand.
"First, observe the bowl." Or so goes the advice from the ramen sensei to his acolyte in the cult Japanese movie Tampopo. David Chang likes to take a similar approach. "You can tell a lot by the appearance," he says. "If it's got pickled ginger on it, you know it's Hakata-style. If they have an egg, bamboo and it's clear, I know it's Chinese-style. If it has cabbage you know it's going to be a riff on a modern style."
He's got some substantial ramen experience of his own, having eaten noodles all over Japan and worked in noodle shops in Tokyo on the way to opening the New York noodle bar that began his Momofuku empire. Though Chang is quick to say that he's still very much a student of the bowl rather than a teacher, as a sometime ramen obsessive he's just the guy, we thought, to give us some perspective on the wave of mostly new ramen shops that has given rise to a lot of involved discussion in Sydney of late.
But once we get him through the noren curtains, he drops a bombshell: he's lost his taste for tonkotsu, the style based on a pork stock rich in emulisfied fat that has become the yardstick for many a ramen obsessive. "At the super-funky tonkotsu ramen places in Japan you eat a bowl and then you feel sort of sick afterwards. Greasy," he says. "But it's so delicious when you're eating."
Chang's criteria in our work are pretty straightforward: "My method comes down to places I'd like to come back to to eat again." The noodles are important, but what elevates a ramen to "best-in-world status", he adds, is always the broth.
Ramen, says Chang, is just an evolved comfort food "like the endless variations on tomatoes and pasta, although a hell of a lot more work goes into this than a red sauce". He thinks it's unjust, however, that though ramen is the stuff of cult obsession, operators who try to charge for it cop a lot of criticism. "It makes me mad that you can charge $20 for red sauce and dried pasta, but ramen? No way."
We circle back to tonkotsu. "Remember that moment in Jiro Dreams of Sushi when Jiro is talking about o-toro [the fattiest cut of sashimi tuna] and how easy it is to please everyone with it? He says it's because it's fatty and it's easy to understand. I think it's the same thing with tonkotsu ramen. I used to crush two bowls of this stuff at a time. Now I'm more interested in pursuing something cleaner and lighter. It just comes with age." Let us observe the bowls.
Level 1, Chifley Plaza, Chifley Square, cnr Hunter & Phillip sts, Sydney
"The shoyu isn't great; the signature tonkotsu, on the other hand, is really good and spicy. I think that mixing the two together is a good idea. Is that cheating? This is the level of ramen I would expect at Narita Airport, except they wouldn't put the sprouts on, or have pork belly."
125 Falcon St, Crows Nest, (02) 9955 0225
"Shio chicken broth is arguably the hardest chicken broth to do. This one isn't really heavy on the fish flavour - I actually like that. Five years ago I might've thought this was bland and boring but now I'd rather have it because it's really clean. These noodles are really good. Everyone has their own thing with the thickness of the noodles and the type of broth. What they say is when you have a tonkotsu broth you want really thin noodles. I think the appeal with Ryo's is that people want a little taste of Japan. I can understand why people like it, but I'd much rather eat their chicken broth."
Eating World food court, shop 209, 25-29 Dixon St, Haymarket
"This is basically pork gravy. I'm not digging on it, but that's a stylistic thing as much as anything else. This is the most proper tonkotsu that we've had. The f*ing insane porkiness and heaviness of it all - the whole thing. You could argue that Ippudo and this are the heaviest, but that's because they're cooking the same sort of style in a way. This is even more of a niche style than Ippudo. The noodles are good, though. You want bite in noodles, but not an al dente bite. All this white stuff on top is pork fatback. A lot of times when they boil fatback in the broth, they sieve it out and then add it back in to the finished ramen, and I think that's what they've done here. I don't know who orders the super-mega bowls, though. Someone like us, I guess, but younger. If you were hungover and wanted grease, this would be the thing you'd get."
Level 5, shop 5021, Westfield Sydney, cnr Pitt & Market sts, Sydney, (02) 8078 7020
"How does it compare to Ippudos I've tried in Japan and the US? It's like McDonald's - it's consistent. You have to admire anyone who can open up multiple branches and get it right. It's very porky broth, a Hakata style - that's a region in the south-west of Japan - and so there's a lot of pork. The pork loin I've got in my bowl now isn't my favourite - in fact, I think I'd prefer anything but the loin. It's my least favourite cut, but they've got rolled belly in the other bowls. Obviously these guys do a really good job with their tonkotsu - it's really popular - but I just can't embrace it like I did when I was 22. For the style, it's delicious; it's just not my cup of tea. I'd give them a nine out of 10, but I think I'd rather eat the chicken ramen at Ryo's."
Shop 2, 1 Market St, Sydney, (02) 9267 4649
"This is wafu shoyu, and the 'wafu' part means contemporary-style. This bowl is ripping hot - there's a thick plug of oil on top, and the steam is just barely percolating out from underneath. It's delicious. I think maybe this is the best bowl overall - the noodles are better than Tenkomori, and the broth has a chicken and seafood base, is well seasoned, the egg was cooked nicely and seasoned heavily as well, and the pork is a big slice of belly. I don't know if anyone agrees with me, but I think this is the best in town."
Shop 16, Regent Place, 501 George St, Sydney
"I'd argue that this shoyu is going to turn out to be an MSG bomb - and, yes, there are pictures of MSG boxes on the walls. But this is really delicious. Really clean. I'd have to argue that this is the most flavourful broth I've had of all of these. Would it be wrong to give the highest rating to this place? The noodles are by far the worst, but the soup is the best. It's got heat. It's one of the more complex soups, and it's really cheap."
"The winner for me is Menya in terms of all-round quality. The best tonkotsu broth might be Ippudo, but the best light broth is Ryo's chicken. I think the most flavourful one was the cheapest one, Tenkomori. Which of them would I go to again? Every one of them was good, so I think wherever there's no line, that's where I'd go. I wouldn't queue for any of these places, but then I wouldn't queue for my own food, either."