Ikkoryu Fukuoka Ramen

27 Russell St, Melbourne CBD. Phone: (03) 9650 3708

Disclaimer: Guest reviewer Richard, a keen connoisseur of ramen, ate as a guest of Ikkoryu. 

Melbourne is experiencing a bit of a ramen boom at the moment. After enduring years, nay decades of extremely ordinary ramen, suddenly serious options are popping up, including Little Ramen Bar, Fukuryu, Hakata Gensuke and Mensousai Mugen.
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In the case of Gensuke and (I believe) Fukuryu, there is a providence link with an actual Japanese ramen shop or chain. This is also the case with Ikkoryu, which is opening properly in Melbourne from Wednesday 1 April and is a brand of the Yamagoya Ramen Group hailing from Fukuoka.

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Ramen is, like the indigenous Japanese religion Shinto, not monotheistic. There are dozens of types of ramen—reflecting prefectures of Japan (or even different parts of the same city)—and a good shop in Japan will generally stick to one, at most two types. The Melbourne scene is heavy on Fukuoka-style tonkotsu (pork-bone broth), and Ikkoryu does nothing to change that. I’d love to see more fish-and-pork mix broths and tsukemen (dipping noodles) which are big in Tokyo right now.

But anyway, Ikkoryu. The space is clean, open, modern & efficient. It is a bit chain-y and high-end-by-numbers which is not a bad thing. It doesn’t make you feel like you’re in a demi-basement. They’ve brought out a Japanese calligraphy artist to decorate the sliding doors that delineate the private tatami area. A pleasant place to slurp.

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We’re here on the soft opening and so we get to sample the yakimeshi (fried rice), karaage (Japanese friend chicken) and gyoza (dumplings) as mini-entrees.

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The karaage and gyoza are particularly good: the chicken is juicy and the dumplings have an appropriate level of filling. My co-conspirator James likes the yakimeshi but I am less certain… it lacks the simplicity and slight stickiness of the Japanese fried rice I love. (I wonder if yakimeshi is a style of Japanese fried rice I’m not familiar with… it is nearly always referred to as chahan where I eat in Tokyo.)

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The ramen is, of course, the main deal here. As at Gensuke, you have several options (flavour, strength of flavour, noodle chewiness etc) which you circle on the paper placemat in front of you.

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I opt for the standard normal-everything Original Tonkotsu. The theme is refinement. The soup is an elegant style: a creamy (but not thick) tonkotsu broth of pork bones only (no chicken) with a light flavour and little pungency. It’s a bit beige for my tastes but a great intro to this style of ramen.

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The men (noodles) are billed as hosomen (thin noodles). This is true but they are not super skinny, being a satisfying thickness and cooked to a slightly chewy perfection. The ajitama (flavoured soft-boiled egg) is really excellent, with a deliciously creamy yolk. The chashu (roast pork) is tasty and melty.

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James orders the miso tonkotsu and this really shines: a deeply satisfying and complex blend of white and red miso and some subtle spices take this ramen up a notch into special territory. It makes me enthusiastic to try their other flavour options which include garlic, spicy and yuzu (Japanese citron).

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Overall, this is perhaps Melbourne’s most refined ramen experience. The dining experience can also include premium sake options and a gamut of wine and beer. I always feel a bit weird eating ramen in upmarket environments and quasi-premium price points because it’s disconnected from the authentic Japanese experience: ramen in Japan is a kind of artisan junkfood, shamelessly delicious, unpretentious, often shabby and usually inexpensive. But turning it into fine dining probably reflects the economics of offering this food here. And we mustn’t discourage that!

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Ikkoryu Fukuoka Ramen on Urbanspoon

Gyoza Douraku

147 Bourke Street, Melbourne CBD
Phone: 9650 5225

I really don’t spend enough time with my sister. And that’s not likely to change now that I’ve moved to Sydney, but I’m happy that I did get to spend an evening with her last year for her birthday.

Here are some photos.
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Then we went to the the amazing Meow Meow!
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Gyoza Douraku on Urbanspoon

Kokoro ramen

157 Lonsdale St, Melbourne CBD
Phone: 9650 1215

I was pretty excited when I heard that there was a new ramen joint opening in the city. I was even more excited when I learned that they were serving tonkotsu broth. That collagenous pinnacle of soups made of melted pig joints is one of my favourite things in the world.

One of my other favourite things is pork belly, so when I went up to order and found that they were virtually giving the stuff away – it was an extra $1.50 for a side of braised pork – I was doubly excited.

But life is full of cruel disappointments, and Kokoro is the embodiment of one such disappointment for this humble ramen slurper.
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“But what?” I hear you say. What could possible have gone so wrong. That broth looks sufficiently opaque, and there’s a big chunk of pork belly, and look, the egg even has a reasonably gooey yolk! But all is not as it seems. The broth was decent, though lacking the luscious lip-coating feel that I wanted from a tonkotsu broth; it was well balanced – not too porky, nor too salty.

But dig a little deeper, and we uncover the main problem: HAKATA-STYLE NOODLES! When it comes to ramen, I’m devoutly anti-Hakata. I understand that it has a long and popular tradition in Japan, but I don’t care for it. It seem like under-cooked soba to me – unyielding adn leathery – and has none of that awesome springiness that the more common Tokyo-style ramen has. Ajisem ramen are the probably the most famous of the perpetrators of Hakata-style ramen; the first time I had ramen there, I thought it was a joke, and they were using spaghetti noodles.

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But the insult to injury here is the false economy of the braised pork. It turns out they must have been trying to get rid of a batch of pork that had gone wrong, because it was, like the Hakata-style noodles, tough and unyielding. Caveat emptor, I guess. I doubt I’ll be back, but if I do go back, I’ll definitely avoid any ‘specials’.

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Kokoro Ramen on Urbanspoon

Kimurakan Café

238 Little Bourke Street, Melbourne CBD
Phone: 9650 2038

I love @thatjessho. Because she’s an enabler. And if we’ve learned anything at all from foodblogging, it’s that enablers are gold. Even when they’re not foodbloggers themselves. I’m looking at you, @eatnik.Only where @eatnik is a duck-enabler, @thatjessho is a booze enabler. It’s really hard to decide which is better, so I’m not going to.

Anyway, one Thursday not so long ago, I’d had coffee – for those of you who aren’t regular readers, coffee is like meth-amphetamine for me – so I was in need of some alcohol to calm my heart palpitations after work. Enter the booze-enabler. After a few drinks at the Cumulus bar, we headed off to find some food, because it wasn’t Friday, so eating wasn’t cheating.

Jess suggested Kimurakan, and I agreed, not really knowing what I was agreeing to. Of course, I’d been to Kimurakan before – quite a few times in my uni days – but I’d never actually bothered to learn its name. It was just the Japanese place, next to the (then) Taiwanese place (now Sambal Kampung) on Little Bourke, a couple of doors down from the canned abalone, Ugg boot and lanolin cream emporium.

Kimurakan is a pretty no-frills place, as far as looks go. Some might say run down. I say humble and unpretentious. But they serve pretty consistently decent food, and it’s cheap. Which is a winning combination in my books.

So I was couple of drinks in – yes, I am an utter lightweight, but apparently a fun drunkard – of course I ordered the mose deep-fried laden thing on the menu. The Kimurakan bento. To make things easier to read, I’m going to use bullet points here. The following things were not deep fried:

  • oysters
  • prawns
  • pippies
  • salad
  • rice.

The following things were:

  • mini-tonkatsu (pork cutlet)
  • kara-age (chicken)
  • croquettes x 2
  • fish
  • takoyaki
  • spring roll
  • tofu
  • a crab claw (I think? It was the little puffy thing in the middle).

imageI have to say I wasn’t the most discerning customer at that point in time, but just about everything tasted great. I did wish the oysters weren’t steamed, but rather fresh, or crumbed and fried, and the pippies and prawns were a bit of a let down. That’s probably just because they weren’t fried. They should have fried the salad too, and you can fry rice, right? Oh wait, they’re Japanese, not Chinese. Anyway, it was all pretty good, and a heaving amount of food for a ridiculously low price. From memory, it was somewhere near $15?

Jess had a hankering for udon, and ordered the nabeyaki udon. It was also a pretty large serving, with quite a bit of (hidden) seafood. Into which she proceeded to dump a mountain of shichimi togarashi (that’s the Japanese chilli/pepper powder). Scroll up fo a second. See that white pepper shaker? That’s the togarashi. Which totally doesn’t come out through those weeny holes. Be a pro like Jess, and take the lid off before sprinkling/pouring/dumping. Oh, and I love a restaurant that serves up a noodle soup with a ladle instead of a spoon. (Yes, I know, it’s a Japanese thing.)imageOf course, that wasn’t enough food, so we ordered a little entree of takoyaki to share. To be honest,  they were a little disappointing. Doughy, a touch bland, and not quite hot enough to make the bonito flakes dance the mystical bonito flake dance.imageAnd yeah, I did eat all of that bento, in case you were wondering.image

Kimurakan on Urbanspoon

J Cafe (Sushi Burger)

167 Exhibition Street, Melbourne CBD
Phone: 9650 9877

Ever since @alexlobov told me about this place last year, I had been curious to try it. Sushi in the shape of a burger? What’s not to like!? It’s a marriage of Japanese flavours with Western form and function. It’s a type of fusion that instantly works, unlike some forms of culinary fusion, where different flavours are mashed together in a strained combination that is intriguing, not not always successful.

I met up with Mr D for dinner, and as is our trademark routine – mostly caused by my indecision, and enabled by his easy-going passivity – we wandered around the city looking for somewhere to eat. When he suggested J Cafe, which he referred to as ‘that sushi burger place’, and which I think should be named Sushi Burger anyway, I agreed. I’m so glad he knows me well enough to have a backup plan in mind.

J Cafe is one of those cute little Japanese places, where the tables are closely packed, there’s a lot of warm blonde wooden furniture, and exceedingly polite Japanese waitresses repeat your order back to you while nodding and adding a questioning ‘yes?’ after reading each item, seeking your confirmation. It’s all very charming, I think.

We both decided to go for the Sushi Burger Box, which comprised of a sushi burger, another dish, and miso soup. For $17, it’s not bad, but there are definitely places nearby where you can get more bang for your buck.

The burgers come wrapped up in paper, a cute touch. This place is all about the kawaii factor, it seems.

I ordered the spicy raw salmon burger. It’s kind of like a round onigiri, with a nori taco wrapped around it. When it comes down to it, it tastes like a fresh hand roll, only the nori is still a bit crispy, which I like.
Mr D had the teriyaki salmon burger, which he was very happy with. I can always tell when Mr D likes what he’s eating, because he eats it rather rapidly, and makes something of a mess.
One little thing that irked me about the sushi burger meal was the fact the second dish was served after the burger, as though the burger was the entree. When the second dish arrived, without any rice accompaniment, it felt a little strange. Especially since I ordered the Tatsuta Age – yep, the fried chicken. I love fried chicken, but it needs a carb-based accompaniment (for full obesity-inducing impact).
This chicken was tasty and juicy, and the mayo drizzled across the top certainly didn’t harm its performance in the deliciousness stakes. I just wish it had come at the same time as the sushi burger.

Mr D had the Kani Croquette (fried mashed potato croquettes with crab meat). Again with the speedy eating and the bit of a mess. To be honest, I think he was much more excited about  the croquettes than the sushi burger.

J Cafe also serves up your standard Japanese bento dishes and sushi, but I think when I go back next time, I’m definitely having another sushi burger.

J Café Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Sekai Japanese Ramen

Shop 194, 81 Hopkins St (Footscray Market ), Footscray
Phone: 9687 1088

A while ago, I dislocated my big toe playing soccer. Yeah, I know, gross; not the way to start off a post about ramen. But you should know that on the day I went finally got down to Sekai Japanese Ramen, in the Footscray Market, I had swung down Hopkins Street on crutches, because despite sporting injuries, recipe testing for the Melbourne Foodblogger’s Dinner had to go on, and I needed more pork belly (and Penny needed more ox tongue).

So I figured since I had to endure the indignity of traipsing through the market on crutches, with one foot in a half-cast and a backpack full of meat, I at least deserved a decent lunch beforehand. I’d been meaning to visit Sekai ever since Lauren wrote about it not long after I moved to Footscray. Having good options for both pho and ramen within walking distance of my new home? Surely life couldn’t be that good…

… sadly life isn’t quite that good. While Sekai produces a passable effort, it’s far from what I would call good. On this occasion, I tried the Sekai Ramen, with the shoyu (soy) based broth. I’m not going to go into detail about the Chinese-owned Japanese restaurant issue, but Sekai is clearly Chinese run.

The first thing the bothered me about this bowl was the seafood extender. Yes, they might be of Japanese origin, but I don’t like them. The second thing was the rather obviously over-cooked egg. I don’t expect a gooey egg – it’s a bonus if it appears – but grey yolk edges are a clear sign this egg has been waaay over-cooked. The only saving grace was that it’s a tea egg.
The broth was a little bland, and there was little complexity in flavour beyond the soy itself. The chashu was similarly uninspiring. Lacking in fat content, and nowhere near tender enough.
I was hoping that the ramen noodles would be the saving grace, but even before I bit into them, I knew all hope was lost. They were too soft, and lacked any real toothsome quality.

All in all, if you’re hankering for a soup noodle in Footscray, you’d be wasting your time with Sekai Japanese Ramen. I’m hereby expanding the theory of proximal pho to the theory of proximal soup noodles. Mediocre just isn’t good enough in Footscray.

Sekai Japanese Ramen on Urbanspoon

Toki Japanese Restaurant

88 Grattan St, Carlton
Phone: 9347 9748

So this place has the dubious distinction of being the first restaurant I have double-reviewed. The first time I went there, I had the ramen, which was something of a disappointment. So this time around, when I went on a date with Mr J, I was decidedly not going to go down the noodle route. Besides, eating noodles on dates is for whores. You know what I mean.

We started off with some gyoza. Now I realise it’s a style thing, and that gyoza are not jiaozi, but it always bothers me that gyoza filling is kinda loose – it makes me thing that they’re under-cooked. These gyoza were no different. Not to say they were bad – indeed the flavour of the filling was quite good – but I’m starting to think this Japanese staple isn’t really one of my favourites.

Mr J was feeling indecisive, so he ordered the bento, which had a little bit of everything. It looked like a lot of fun, though I’m not sure how anyone could eat that much food. Wait, anyone except me. Luckily I didn’t order it, because I’m sure I would have hoovered it all up. And hoovering on dates is for whores. You know what I mean. FYI Mr J did not hoover. He’s not a whore.
I ordered the buta something or other. It was like a pork sukyaki, in a cast iron bowl with, swimming in porky broth.
It was really good, though the vegetables were a tad over-cooked, and a bit of a floppy mess. Still, the flavour was simple, but somehow not bland. I quite enjoyed it, though I didn’t finish it. Partly because the serving was very generous, and partly because I didn’t want to look like a whore.

Toki Japanese on Urbanspoon

Ramen at Ume Hana

398 Elizabeth St, Melbourne
Phone: 9663 1108

It’s been a while ramen fans, but the hunt is on again!  This time I headed to Ume Hana, because I had to swap over my Sennheiser iPhone headphones for the FOURTH time in a year… seriously, the sound quality on those things is awesome, but they break so easily. Thankfully there’s a two year warranty, so I can just swap them over when (not if) they go bung.

Anyway, Ume Hana is a pretty pedestrian feeling Japanese/Korean restaurant. It feels more like a cafe (which the place used to be) than a restaurant, actually. But this incongruous setting it totally countered by the fact the owners are actually Japanese, and if you drop in after the lunch-time rush, they’re all sitting around having their staff lunch, and the owner will actually serve you while everyone else continues eating. Sweet!

I decided to go for the Karaage ramen, because I wasn’t in the mood for seafood, and well, fried chicken. ‘Nuff said.

I was impressed when it came out, but unfortunately the first impression wasn’t followed up by the subsequent tasting.
The broth, a shoyu (soy) base, was flavourful, but I would characterise it as more salty than tasty. It was pretty one dimensional. The all important ramen noodles were rather soft – I would hazard a guess that they had been sitting in the piping hot broth waiting while the chicken was being fried. Sitting there too long. As for the toppings, the fried chicken was good, and the inclusion of a poached egg as opposed to a boiled egg was interesting, but looked like it was poached in a microwave. The yolk was cooked to a nice softness, however.

All in all, the ramen was on the poor to mediocre end of the scale.

Broth 2/5
Noodles 2/5
Toppings 3/5
Total 7/15

To see where it sits in the rankings, see my original ramen hunt post.

Ume Hana on Urbanspoon

Izakaya Chuji

165 Lonsdale St, Melbourne
Phone: 9663 8118You know a place is an ‘institution’ when they’re selling branded merchandise (read t-shirts) at the cash register. Izakaya Chuji is one of those places. One of the first izakayas in Melbourne, if not the first, Chuji – as my friends and I refer to it – has been around since 1989! I first started going there during my uni days. Back in the heady days at the turn of the millennium, when all things Japanese were cool, Chuji was our favourite Japanese restaurant. The food was good, the prices low, and we were far too busy playing out the dramas of our young adult lives to care if the service was not so great.

Not a lot has changed in the interceding decade. Chuji still serves up goof Japanese food, specialising in sushi, bento and the smaller snack-plates (I loathe the term ‘Japanese tapas’) which are the essence of izakaya-style restaurants. They also have yakiniku grills upstairs. Suitably, Chuji also has a good selection of Japanese beers. I still have yet to visit the sister sake bar which popped up next door a couple of years back, but one of these days…

Last time I went to Chuji, it was a catch up with Mr I. We’ve known each other since the uni days, so Chuji’s one of our fall-back places when we catch up.

I ordered the agedashi tofu to start.

Agedashi tofu is a favourite dish of mine, and Chuji puts out a good version, though I think the decision to thicken the dashi sauce – which has happened somewhere in the last couple of years – is a bad one. I don’t like the fact that so much sauce clings to the fried tofu. Also, the choice of carrot as a garnish instead of bonito flakes is a little disappointing. The tofu, however, is fried well, and manages to reach the table still crispy.

I also ordered the mixed kim chee, because I thought I might need some vegetables. See mum, I DO eat vegetables!

These weren’t great – the various vegetables had a very similar flavour, except the chinese cabbage kim chee, which had some more chilli to it. Anyway, it was altogether too sweet. I guess that’ll learn me to order kim chee at a Japanese restaurant, and not a Korean restaurant.

Mr I had the cheese gyoza from the specials board. They’ve been on the specials board for months, by the way. We saw them there last time, but no-one was quite brave enough to order them.

They were actually pretty good, however. The switch from soy sauce to mayo was a good move, and the fact they’re deep-fried is also wise. Pan-fried ones would have had an oily, soggy texture, I think.

Mr I also had the yakisoba. I personally don’t like yakisoba – I think it’s probably my least favourite of the various Asian stir-fried noodles. But it’s not the first  time he’s had it at Chuji, so I assume he likes it.

I was in the mood for some more fried goodness, so I had the curry katsudon. The pork was a little on the dry side, but the curry was delightfully rich, even if Japanese curries are the biggest wimps of all curries.
Izakaya Chuji is a reliable stalwart, serving decent Japanese food at very reasonable prices. It’s not pretentious, but it’s similarly not impressive. A good relaxed place to eat and hang out with friends.

Izakaya Chuji on Urbanspoon

Tonkotsu ramen at Kenzan GPO

GPO Building, Rear 350 Bourke St, Melbourne CBD
Phone: 9663 7767

I’m not often one to take suggestions from a cat, though I probably should, if Murakami is to be believed, but I was happy to be pointed in the direction of Kenzan@GPO by chocopaws after the initial ramenhunt. The first time I went there, I was sadly informed that they weren’t serving the ramen. But recently, I stopped in the city for lunch on an errand, and was heartened to find “Winter Special” signs up.

Not only was there ramen, but there was the king of all ramen – tonkotsu! At a hefty $15 a bowl – it sells for about $10 at Ramen Ya next door – expectations were high. Would the higher-end neighbour be able to knock Ramen Ya off their perch as the purveyors of the finest ramen in the Melbourne CBD?

Ooh, semi-soft-boiled egg. A good start! A generous serve of chashu, as well as the traditional bamboo shoots and two types of seaweed. Pickled ginger and spring onion garnishes round out what was a thoroughly impressive looking bowl.
The noodles were of a decent texture – a little past al dente but still holding enough requisite springiness. And it was a hefty serve of noodles, too.Unfortunately, that’s where the praise ends.

The broth was far too salty, and it was just as well the pickled ginger was there to offset the intensity of the broth. Yet, for its intensity of flavour, the broth lacked the lip smacking collagen hit that Ramen Ya’s broth carries. Which is the point of tonkotsu, really, if you ask me.

My other major disappointment with Kenzan’s ramen was the chashu. Yes, there was quite a lot of it. And yes, it was quite meltingly tender, as good chashu should be. But this was largely due to the fact that it was mostly fat. Now I’m not one to shy away from pork fat. Indeed, I think pork fat is one of the things the gods bestowed upon humankind, to make life on Earth bearable. But this was pork fat overkill.

To add insult to injury, when I took my first bite of chashu, it was COLD. Really!? Really, Kenzan? We both know you can do better than that. Yes, it was busy, but no, that’s not an excuse to serve cold pork fat. Perhaps I should have followed the teachings of Tampopo and caressed my chashu and stared longingly at it for a while longer, while the broth did its work to soften the fat, but I like to have some pork at the same time as I have the ramen noodle, which I can’t delay the consumption of for fear it will soften  further. Oh the painful paradox! Which could have been avoided had you only warmed the pork a little before placing it in the broth. Le sigh.

I really wanted to love the Kenzan ramen. And in the final analysis, it was much better than other versions being served around town, but it fell far short of my expectations. Especially given the price. I’ll head next door to Ramen Ya next time instead.

Broth 3/5
Noodles 3/5
Toppings 3/5
Total 9/15

The lesson here: Never listen to cats.

Kenzan @ GPO on Urbanspoon

For a comparison against other ramen in the CBD, see my original ramenhunt post.