Tuesday, August 22, 2017

RAMEN STORY SUNNYBANK HILLS

Shop 43 Pineland Plaza Shopping Centre, 663 Beenleigh Rd, Sunnybank Hills QLD 4109 
Open Mon-Sat for lunch 11am–3pm, Dinner 5-9pm, Closed Sundays
Phone: (07) 3243 7198
https://www.zomato.com/brisbane/ramen-story-springwood

I'd developed a pretty concise list of Brisbane Ramen-Ya's in my mind with intention to gradually cover on this here blog. One that I was completely unaware of though was Ramen Story in Sunnybank Hills. It's not very far from my work office so I stopped in recently after I spotted it while driving past. Turns out it also has a sister restaurant a few km's away in Underwood. I can't find any information about this shop online though, so maybe that's why I wasn't aware of it until now. Don't let the above listed street address mislead you, though the shopping centre that this place is in is listed as on Beenleigh Road, access is actually from a driveway on Pinelands Road.
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There's a bit of a Korean approach at this place, most evident in the fried chicken dishes and the 'Donkatsu' Ramen option as the basic dish. Other options include a dish with extra pork, a shoyu seasoned soup, a miso soup, a Kara (spicy) soup with pork mince and a dish with extra garlic added. There's also a few side dishes including the previously mentioned fried chicken, Takoyaki, Koroke (like deep fried potato dumplings), rice dishes etc etc. No beers or alcohol on offer, just the standard options of soft drinks and bottled water. There's also a chilled water dispenser.
I rolled in just before lunch to an almost empty restaurant so my dish arrived really quickly. There was nothing much Donkatsu about it though, the pork included wasn't breaded, but just the basic charshu style shoulder. The dish was presented vey well though I must say, clean and tidy, and actually massive, possibly one of the biggest bowls that I have had as standard in Brisbane. Good value in that respect.
The broth was a bit of a let down. There was a clean pork flavour happening, but the seasoning was virtually non existent and there were no condiments anywhere in the shop for me to use to liven it up a little. It was a little thin too, not fatty enough. I think that with a few more hours over the flame and the correct tare, this thing could have been quite a bit better.
Noodles were less than average too. This would be the first time that I've run into such below par noodles in Brisbane. They were soft from over cooking, and I'm confident in saying that they just weren't very good quality examples to begin with also. The pork was nice though, held together well and maintained a bit of structure and texture. Standard inclusions were the previously discussed elements, along with sliced spring onion, HEAPS of bean sprouts, a complementary side of kimchee (more Korean) and an over cooked egg half. Bit of  shame really. I've had worse cooked eggs, but none the less, this one was virtually hard boiled, and I don't think that they had given it the Ajitsuke treatment. 

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In regards to serving ware, the bowl they used was really nice. Probably the highest quality bowl  that I have seen in Brisbane; heavy, large, with wide tapered edges, a PROPER Ramen bowl, and it was perfect for direct sipping. They had slippery plastic chopsticks at each table and metal western styled spoons also. As mentioned previously, the portion was huge so value for money was all there.
The shop was clean and tidy and pretty standard. Lots of dark wood and dark bricks. The lighting via modern hanging lamps was perhaps a little too low. Only a slight view of the front of the kitchen so no idea on the cleanliness but if it was anything like the shop, I'm sure it would be fine. Payment options include cash, card or pay tap.
Would I come back here? Perhaps a little harsh, but most likely not. There's potential I guess, but there were certainly not enough redeeming factors today to draw my interest again.
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Thursday, August 10, 2017

HAKATAYA PACIFIC FAIR

Shop FF-1, Pacific Fair Shopping Centre, Broadbeach, QLD 4218 
Open Mon-Fri 9am–8pm, Sat-Sun 9am–7pm 
Phone: (07) 5527 6600
http://hakatayaramen.com/

An emergency work trip to the Gold Coast today got me thinking about Ramen on the glitter strip and why it hadn't come into my mind before this. Seems logical to be covering Ramen in a city less than an hour away. A quick search on my phone brought up a few options. Among them was Hakataya at the recently refurbished Pacific Shopping Centre. Hakataya is arguably the most well known Ramen-Ya in Queensland and certainly the most established with eight locations. It could be said that they preceded the current rising popularity of Ramen in Brisbane with a footprint here since 2010. 

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I ordered the 'Nagahama Ramen' which is the most basic option on the menu. It's a simple tonkatsu broth with a shoyu tare. Other options include a bowl with extra pork, one with added chilli paste, one with a miso tare and one they describe as having a 'seafood' taste. I would assume they season liberally with dashi and bonito. This is a deliberately basic in & out place so options are limited beyond that. There's a gyoza dish, a rice dish and a few other side options. No booze here, but a few soft drink options. They also offer take away.

I arrived just before lunch to very quiet shop so my bowl was presented to me directly over the counter by the chef in less than 3 minutes. It was a simple looking dish, everything visible, clean and tidy. Included was the broth, sliced spring onions, noodles, what they describe as 'pork back ribs' (they must roll and truss them before cooking?), a side dish of takana (pickled mustard greens) and NOTHING ELSE (no egg!). Immediate and then lasting impression wasn't great. Their website claims that they cook their broth for 48 hours but I must say that time really wasn't reflected at all in the end product. Thin and under flavoured soup with little to no stickiness, cloudy but hardly opaque. The noodles were very nice I must say though. Firm and chewy, grabbed the broth as well as they could under the circumstances. The pork was really soft, perhaps too soft. Kept warm in a tray and added to the broth at time of serving. Fell to pieces with just a light grab with the chop sticks. Not a good sign. Perhaps the biggest faux par though- no egg or option to include egg. Really disappointing, but I guess it's a conscious decision as part of the business model for a place like this? They have a policy here of free extra noodles at quieter times and when the chef saw that I had finished my first serving he offered me another. Perhaps the most redeeming element to the entire meal.

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Serving ware was appropriate. A simple white bowl with printed emblem on the inside with heavy spoon and disposable chop sticks. The bowl was shaped fine for direct sipping. Side sauces and seasonings including chilli, mirin and soy were available at a few locations along the benches.

Price was very cheap at $11.50 to start, though with the exclusions of some of the Ramen must-haves, maybe the value isn't so great. Again, they clearly have a business model established here, but with the growing popularity of this cuisine in Queensland, they could easily charge two extra bucks and include a half egg.

The layout of the shop was very nice, new and modern, being an island type kiosk with the kitchen in the middle, surrounded by benches facing inwards. The kitchen itself was very tidy and clean. Payment options are cash, card and pay tap. Parking options are many as it's in one of the biggest shopping centres in the state.

I suppose a shop like this has it's purpose. It's in the middle of a busy shopping complex, so they're clearly attempting to charge low and pump out as much as they can. I'm sure it would suit the type whom doesn't really value Ramen culture and whom wants a quick simple meal, but it's hard to think about coming back here when there's more and more options popping up at the moment with much better offerings. Multiple cooking pots on show in the kitchen indicate to me that they cook on site, which leads me to believe (and hope) that not all broths across each shop are created equal. I will certainly visit more of these shops with time, but I would have no reason to ever come back here.

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Wednesday, August 2, 2017

TARO'S RAMEN QUEEN STREET

480 Queen Street, Brisbane City QLD 4000 
Open every day for Lunch 11:30am–3pm, Dinner 5:30–9pm 
Phone: (07) 3839 4840
http://www.taros.com.au

For my second post I had planned to visit a store other than Taro's but when the idea came up for a Ramen lunch with some colleagues today and they suggested the Queen Street store, I couldn't really say no.

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All of the options available at the Ascot store are available here in the city, including Tonkatsu on it's own, or with either a medium chilli paste or hot chilli paste added, a veg and chicken based broth with either shio, shoyu or miso seasoning, a single or double portion in tsukamen style, and a couple of vegetarian noodle dishes. All of the same sides are available too from what I can see along with the same alcoholic and non alcoholic drinks including genuine imported Japanese beers (including tapped Suntory), sake, plum wine etc. There's also a chilled water dispenser here too.

I have noted previously that for the purpose of neutrality, I will keep my ordering to the basics, but as today I visited Taro's for the second time in a row, I opted for the popular 'Fire Tonkatsu" which is essentially just the base soup with a double serving of chilli paste heaped on top to which I added my preferred harder noodles. I should note that all of the soup adding options available at the Ascot store are also on the menu here, though of note- they don't have an iPad set up here, just laminated menus that you order from at the counter. You also pay when you order instead of after you eat, which I prefer. 

We visited during the middle of lunch so they were really quite busy, but the bowl landed within about 10 minutes. Once again, a pretty little presentation, though I do note that a lot of the contents had either sunken under the surface of the broth or were hidden by the generous splash of chilli paste (not a bad thing). Inclusions were the broth, one half egg, noodles, soft Bangalow rolled pork shoulder, a square of nori, sliced spring onions, chilli paste, Korean style chilli threads and toasted whole white sesame seeds. They omit the black garlic oil on this one but one of my dining partners had the regular broth and I can confirm that it's a standard on that dish. I could note all of the same qualities in this broth as the one of the previous post. It's immaculately 'clean' with a gloriously pure pork taste, fatty and rich and seasoned with not much more that salt. I am not the biggest chilli fan so was a little nervous leading up to the meal, but considering the volume of paste that they add to the bowl, it's really not that hot at all, adding a very slight hum and a nice chilli flavour. The egg was cooked perfectly again, the noodles were appropriately chewy, the charshu pork melted in the mouth. Again, they could have added a little more of it to make me happier.

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Today's bowl was again a proper lipped, more traditional style, which was ideal of sipping and obviously preferred. Chop sticks were the wooden disposable variety. The soup spoon was again a heavy, deep ceramic number, though with my growing confidence in sipping direct from the bowl, I didn't even touch it today. I probably embarrassed my dining partners, we are still in Brisbane... whatever. 

Cost here mirrors that of the the Ascot store, $15 for the basic and then up from there, so nothing to complain about from me. Customer service was on point for such a busy lunch service. This place sits on the ground floor of a newish corporate business high rise in the middle of the city so the bulk of their business comes from suits during this mad lunch rush Monday-Friday. They're obviously on top of the craft as everyone seemed pleased with how it was rolling for such a busy period.

Vibe here is better. As described, the shop is in the middle of a relatively new high rise development so the fact that Taro essentially just filled a pre determined space is a little obvious. The front of the shop presents as an all glass affair with a basic sign in Japanese and English above the door. Inside offers a little more, nice tungsten lighting, wood panelled walls, matte concrete tiled floors, some hanging plants and clean wooden furniture with individual and communal, bench style tables. It's all very clean and tidy considering how busy it is, and a slight glimpse of the kitchen that is offered behind where you order suggests a pretty hygienic environment. I think it's all enhanced by the relaxed, communal feel created by a full room of contended diners. Payment options are cash, card or pay wave. If you know the city, then you know that parking can be a nightmare, so again, do your best to find anything within at least a 10-15 minute walk radius and you should count yourself lucky. There are parking garage options closer but you'll pay more to use them that you will for your meal.

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Thoroughly impressed as always. Next time I'll need to get to a different Ramen-Ya.

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Thursday, July 20, 2017

TARO'S RAMEN ASCOT

1/145 Racecourse Rd, Ascot QLD 4007 
Open every day for Lunch 11:30am–3pm, Dinner 5:30–9pm 
Phone: (07) 3868 2833 
http://www.taros.com.au

What better way to commence post matter on this blog than with what I consider to be the grand daddy of Brisbane Ramen- Taro's at Racecourse Road, Ascot. For two years I have been frequenting this Ramen-Ya and I don't think that I have ever been disappointed. This was the restaurant that essentially introduced me to a good Tonkatsu soup and is my benchmark for any restaurant attempting the style in Brisbane. 

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Main size selections are the Tonkatsu broth as standard, or with either a medium chilli paste or hot chilli paste added, a veg and chicken based broth with either shio, shoyu or miso seasoning, a single or double portion in tsukamen style, and a couple of vegetarian noodle dishes. Plenty of other sides are also available, including various gyoza, kaarage chicken, a couple of Japanese curry dishes, some tofu variations, takoyaki, various cold salads and a few other things. The drinks menu is extensive with a range of authentic imported bottle and can beers as well as a tapped Suntory number. There are also various sake and plum wine options and non alcoholic soft drinks. There's also a chilled water dispenser which is essential if you're not buying any drinks. No booze for me today though as I am on a lunch break from work.
With the aim to present as even an account of my visit as I can, today I opted to order the most basic option that they present- simple Tonkatsu Ramen with no additions, though I did change some aspects at no extra cost. I opted for 'harder' noodles (I like 'em chewy) and 'extra salt' (I like it salty). Anyone who has visited the Racecourse Road store should know that they offer a great range of optional soup extras at further cost including menma, extra egg, extra noodle in the bowl, larger overall portions, extra noodles on the side etc. I'd like to see the option of narutomaki (the only thing missing if you ask me). You can also opt for other things (at no cost) like softer noodles, harder cooked egg etc. Everything is ordered through iPad's that are available at each table that send the orders directly back to the kitchen.  I popped in today for a quick lunch break and they weren't overly busy so the soup landed in front of me in timely manner (around 5 mins).

What is plopped down is an attractive little presentation. I can more or less see a part of everything that is in the bowl. Inclusions are broth, noodle, a lovely soft piece of rolled chashu pork shoulder, one half egg, blackened garlic oil, a good portion of sliced spring onion, a square of nori and toasted sesame.
What I love in a good bowl of Tonkatsu is a pale, milky smooth, thick, fatty broth. Another word I like to use in my head which may not translate well is 'clean'. To me Taro's broth is very clean in that it's a pure, smooth pork flavoured broth, seasoned liberally with just salt from what I can tell, and not a lot else. The soup is reduced to near perfection, it's sticky and it clings to the lips just like an accomplished broth should. Made in house on a daily basis, the noodles are immaculately chewy and springy, arguably the best in the city. The pork shoulder is of the very traditional style, a braised Japanese chashu rolled pork shoulder, sliced quite thinly, and most likely re heated in the broth itself as it doesn't show any signs of caramelisation that might happen when grilled or torched. If I were to complain about anything, it might be that the pork portion is a little bit lacking compared to other Ramen joints in Brisbane, but it's hardly an issue for me. Of note is the fact that they use Bagalow pork here, it's super soft and falls apart in the mouth with not a lot of work. Possibly the softest in Brisbane. The egg is cooked to the correct standard, hard white, liquid yolk. I'd love to see it marinated for a little longer perhaps, but it's on par with just about every high end Ramen shop that I have experienced. Also included is a pretty mild blackened garlic oil. Not every place includes this as standard but they do here. While it's very dark, the flavour is not over powering like I have experienced at other shops, the portion is appropriate and adds just that proper amount of bitterness. Every single bowl of Ramen should be garnished with sliced spring onion and there's more than enough included here, along with a sprinkle of whole toasted sesame seeds.

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It's all served in a perfect noodle bowl that is very easily sipped from at the end of the meal. The chopsticks are the wooden disposable kind and work very well when attempting to pick up chunky portions of noodles. The soup spoon is a heavy, deep ceramic number. There's also an entire table inside devoted to various seasoning and condiments including chilli paste, sesame oil, mirin, soy etc, though it's hardly required with such a perfect soup.

I have read some people complain about the cost of this place, though today's bowl only cost me $15 which is on par with any other quality shop in Brisbane so I don't know where that's coming from. Maybe the issue lies in just how easy it is to make additions via the iPad which in turn is bound to blow out the cost. I have spent much more cash here before because of that alone. The base level bowl though has everything that you may get at any other shop, and the portion sizes are very comparable.

I have also read many people complain about the bad customer service here. Today was a quiet day so I can hardly complain about what service was offered during my stop. The meal arrived fast and was presented to me in a polite and cordial manner, the payment process was efficient and succinct. I have been here on insanely busy nights too, and I have no qualms with the service offered at those times (more or less the same as today). I think it's a bit rich to complain about these kinds of things when you're paying $15 for a bowl of noodles.

In terms of the overall vibe, I will say that this shop is just about the least atmospheric in all of Brisbane. It's a cold room with very little going on except for a wall of large sake bottles. Outside is no better, an alfresco setting, situated under an old weathered tarpaulin style cover, boxed in by retractable plastic wind shields. Again, hardly worth dwelling over when paying so little for a meal. I can't get a view of the kitchen from the dining room so I cannot comment on the cleanliness, but the the dining room seems very clean so I would hope the same of the back area. Parking is non existent so you may need to park around the block or down the street and walk up. Payment options include cash, card or pay pass via one of those Commonwealth bank tablets.

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I don't think that I need to go into detail when summarising this place. Despite a few of it's negatives as listed previously, it's my favourite in Brisbane if you couldn't already tell. The soup is pure and clean, the noodles are ideal, the options are many and overall if all you want is a quick, affordable, hearty bowl of Ramen, this is the place to go.
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RAMEN-YA!

I am a Brisbane, Queensland, Australia born, raised and residing thirty-something ex-chef with an affinity for quality and authentic Japanese Ramen. With the growing popularity of the dish in my home town and further beyond, I thought that it was about time that someone local began the task of chronicling the various venues that are popping up in the area at an ever increasing rate. I am not any kind of a professional writer by any means, so bear with me as I attempt to convey my opinion of the many great venues in Brisbane and beyond. While the focus on this blog will primarily be to write about the numerous Ramen-Ya's in Brisbane, it will be more than likely that I will also document any venues that I hit up interstate or abroad. The basis of most of my posts will likely stick with the following criteria (though they probably won't be in bullet form when I post about them):

  • Presentation: certainly not the most important aspect of the typical Ramen dining experience, but obviously the first thing to be taken into consideration when that bowl is plonked down in front of the diner is how the presented dish looks. I am a typical Australian chef by trade and a good chunk of my formal training has always centred around how the particular dish is plated/presented, so I am always fascinated by a good looking plate-up. I understand that there is only really so much that one can do with a bowl of soup and some noodles, but it's easy to see when the chef has just thrown it all into the bowl in a rush, and when they've taken the time and care to make it look good. There's a big difference. 
  • The flavour of the broth: above all, to me anyway, the most important thing about any Ramen is how the broth itself tastes. I am a self confessed Tonkatsu Ramen fiend so most of my reviews initially will focus on this Kyushu style broth. I would argue that this style also has the most potential to vary wildly in the flavour profile and there's simply no other cuisine anywhere in the world that beats a properly seasoned Tonkatsu Ramen. I've tasted heaven in Tonkatsu and I've also been let down a number of times. I will attempt to go into depth on this subject as there are so many factors to take into account.
18 hour Tonkatsu Ramen broth by Me.
  • Noodle texture: the third most important aspect of any quality Ramen (and I'd be surprised if anyone disagreed with me on this) is the quality of the noodle. There aren't many wholesale producers making their own noodles in this country, though there are a handful of restaurants making their own in house. Some connoisseurs will argue that the only good noodle is one made and then cooked fresh. I will admit that I've never had a bad noodle when handled in this manner, but in a hospitality environment where the luxury of being able to purchase a fresh noodle from a producer (like in Japan where it's obviously a lot more common) is a lot more scarce, I have zero gripes with a restaurant that knows how to properly cook a dry packet noodle. There are some absolutely horrible dry packet brands in the market that are easily identifiable (there's also some horrendous frozen fresh brands available too for arguments sake), though there are a couple of makers that produce a brilliant dry noodle with only wheat, salt and water. Extra points to restaurants that offer multiple noodle options (curly, straight, harder, softer etc) on their menus.
  • Inclusions in the Ramen: pretty self explanatory really- what else besides the basics are included in the soup as a menu standard? I would expect every single quality Tonkatsu Ramen to come standard with at least the broth, noodles, a hunk of pork, at least two types of vegetation, and at least one half egg. While on that subject...
  • Egg quality: I don't think that it's very hard to produce at least a moderately good Ajitsuke Tamago. I've done it myself many times. Cook it properly, to the correct timing, cool it quickly, and marinate it for long enough to impart those flavours. Arguably an iconic inclusion in any quality soup, it blows my mind when any restaurant that wants to present itself as a proper Ramen-Ya cannot produce a proper Ramen egg. Big points deductions for a shop that cannot complete this relatively simple task properly.
  • Value for money: in my experience so far, I don't think that I've ever been in a situation where I thought that the Ramen that I'd just eaten wasn't total value for money. Though in a mainstream Brisbane dining environment (and economy for that matter) where money is tighter than ever and many restaurants are charging a lot more for a lot less, this is a point that must be taken into account. I will list prices on my posts whenever possible.
  • Optional extras: what extras are available to have added to the soup itself? Extra egg? Extra meat? Extra narutomaki? etc etc.
  • Meat quality and cut: what type of meat are they using? What cut of that meat are they using? What is the quality of their chosen cut like and how do they treat it before presentation? Is it grilled? Or torched? Or blanched in the broth to re heat it? etc etc.
  • Range of broth types on the menu: as stated previously, I am a Tonkatsu Ramen man, and initially (on the first round of visits anyway) I will likely opt to post about this style exclusively, but as this blog progresses, I would like to start writing about Shio, Shoyu, Miso etc. With each post I will be mentioning how many styles are on the menu and in what manner they list them. 
  • Side dishes available: at the end of the day, we are really only here to talk about one thing- Ramen! And realistically, I don't really care if any particular shop doesn't offer anything else other than this. It is nice to be able to grab some dumplings, or edamame alongside my soup if I want to though.
  • Drinks available: I better be able to order a beer in a glass stein that has a handle to wash down my noodle soup.
  • Utensils used: It may sound silly, but what kind of bowl and chopsticks are used is really important to me. I'm a straight-from-the-bowl sipper and there are some bowls out there with odd shapes that just do not allow for this to happen in a clean manner. Points will go to soups serviced in bowls with full sipability. It's a similar story for chopsticks and soup spoons. I want wooden chopsticks that grip the noodles, no slippery plastic garbage, and I want to be able to sip from the spoon in a less than awkward manner.
  • Customer service: I am by no means any kind of critic when it comes to this. I don't need much from the staff when I am out for my dinner. Just take my order and let me eat. I will try and note anything out of the ordinary/unreasonable in what service is offered.
  • The shop layout and vibe itself: This one is both important to me, but then again not really. If I am dining in this country, it is really nice when the owner of the shop seems to have gone to a little bit of trouble to make his or her shop feel like a proper Japanese Ramen-Ya. Benches for the diners positioned around the central open kitchen, all facing in. Loren (flags) hanging in the doors, a classic Ramen ordering and payment ticket machine (haven't seen one is Aus yet though). With that said, as long as the food is good, the vibe of the shop is very secondary to me.
  • Cleanliness of the shop/kitchen: pretty obvious and important I think. I want to know that my meal was produced in a clean environment, just like anyone else would I hope.
  • Payment options: Maybe this seems petty, and at the end of the day I will not be rating shops based on this, but it can be a little frustrating sometimes when you find out after lining up for 10 minutes that the restaurant that you're in only accepts cash and you've only got your card. It's happened to me a couple of times before. A simple note of payment options will be made.

And with that, another Ramen blog is born. A few things to note before we get into this; Admittedly there are a limited number of venues to post about here in Brisbane. Realistically I could have it all covered within about 10-15 posts I think. The idea of this blog is just to build an accurate database of what is out there. So don't get too hopeful (initially anyway) for really frequent posting. As stated previously though, I will attempt to cover whatever I can when out of town also.
With that previous point, my fiancee has suggested that I cover content beyond just Ramen. I am still playing with this idea in my mind, but it is entirely a possibility that I will consider this down the track. If I decide on this idea though, extra content will likely still be devoted to Japanese cuisine (aka the best cuisine in the world). 
And finally, with the limited number of options in my home town, I will openly admit that apart from five dining experiences in Tokyo last year, the grand scope of my own personal Ramen eating experience does not extend beyond five or six shops here in Brisbane. Though with that said, those experiences are capped by what is arguably the best Ramen restaurant in Australia, coupled with two years of study, practice and reading that borders on obsessive.
If you're still here, and still interested in an Australian take on a Japanese icon, make the effort to follow this blog. Thanks.