Sunday, 9 February 2014

Arigataya, Northbridge, Western Australia (Alissa and Don Eat Australia)

The first Star Wars film I saw as a kid was not one of the original trilogy, but the spin-off film 'Ewoks: The Battle for Endor'. I would have been about 7, and I remember thinking the film was awesome. In my teens I worked at the same video store that I had rented Battle for Endor from, and with a sense of nostalgia took it home to watch one weekend. What had once seemed incredible to my 7 year old self now seemed really cheesy; with terrible acting and dialogue, and extremely cheap and unconvincing sets and bad stop motion effects. And c'mon - a Galactic Basic-speaking Wicket? Please. Yub nub, eee chop yub nub.

I mention my experience with the Battle for Endor because dining at Arigataya recently was a similar deflation of nostalgia. I was introduced to ramen by a good Japanophile friend of mine many years ago while hanging out at the Bird in Northbridge. Arigataya was closed that night, but as a life-long noodle fan I had to give this a try. When I finally got to eat there I was greeted by a taste sensation that knocked me off my feet. It was a bowl of spicy miso ramen, and the broth was incredibly umami and delicious, the noodles having a lovely springiness and the thinly cut chashu having a delicate, fatty melt-in-your-mouth texture I'd never found in Chinese barbecue. I was an immediate fan and ramen obsessive, going as far as to cycle into Perth for a bowl of ramen when I was living in Alfred Cove, discovering Nao and Dosukoi so I had more options and buying David Chang's Momofuku cookbook so I could try and make this heavenly dish at home (I've tried, but never had the time to do a proper tonkotsu right at home. It will happen however).

A few years ago Arigataya seemed to change hands as they started calling themselves 'the New Arigataya'. The new owners at first seemed confused about their own menu, but after a short teething period they seemed to have got it right again -slightly different, but still delicious. It was this Arigataya that Alissa first tried, and she too became a convert to the ways of ramen.

With Kai so close, its been over a year and a half since we last had Arigataya's miso ramen so after a night out at Perth Fringe it seemed like a good time to go back to where it all began. I had decided before we arrived that I was going to go with the Spicy Mega Ramen - an enormous bowl of spicy miso ramen that comes with three times the noodles and all the toppings - eggs, karaage and chashu. Alissa decided to try their black garlic pork broth which comes in the more reasonable standard size, and seems to be in a similar style to the Akamaru Shin-Aji from Ippudo. 

Usually I talk about each dish separately, but since the strengths and weaknesses of each bowl were basically the same, it makes sense to discuss these dishes collectively. Both had excellent broths - Alissa's black garlic pork broth had her eyes light up with happiness at how delicious it was. And it really was - I felt it was better than the similar broth at Ippudo as it found the right level of extreme garlic flavour without being excessive. My broth likewise was a really good, wonderfully umami miso broth. I think tonkotsu broth is easier to love due to its extreme porkiness, but this is a miso broth that can compete on equal footing. The chashu was also excellent. Incredibly tender and flavoursome, it could hold its own against some of the best I've had. 

But that's where the positives end. Arigataya have never been the best at getting the eggs right and they certainly have not improved, with the eggs being so cooked that the grey ring of overboiled had formed around the egg yolk. Additionally the karaage was not very crispy, and had a floury texture that did not compare to what I've had at Kai and Dosukoi.

The egg and the karaage are forgivable, but when I stirred up the dish to get the chilli mixed in I found that the excellent, springy round noodles that Arigataya used to use seem to have been replaced with a flat mee pok-style noodle that was soft and lacked that lovely springiness I've always loved about ramen noodles. I know that ramen noodles come in all kinds of shapes and thicknesses in Japan, but these overcooked noodles could hardly be seen as an improvement - and I don't even know if they are actually alkaline noodles. Instead, this substitution came across as a lower quality cost-cutting measure that tasted an awful lot like the mee pok I could have bought cheaply from most Asian gourmet grocers. I wonder if they had simply run out of noodles and ran down the road to get something as a substitute, but given that they have a reputation to uphold they should not be trying to pass something off as something else. Such a shame, as there was so much potential for greatness here squandered by a poor noodle decision.

The Verdict: Good
It so sad that Arigataya seems to have dropped in quality. Maybe they've stretched themselves too thin with such a huge menu of different broths that they've tried to cut corners in other areas. I mean, their broths still are excellent and so is their chashu, but a bowl of ramen is more than just these two elements and unfortunately they have let their standards slide in all other respects. Alissa is more into the broth than the noodles so she had a more positive experience than I did, going as far as to say she liked it better than Kai. So if noodles are not as important an element to you then Arigataya might be right. As it stands, I don't think I could recommend Arigataya to my friends - and as the place where I first fell in love with this amazing dish, that's really sad indeed.

Arigataya on Urbanspoon

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