Sunday, 16 February 2014

Zensaki Sushi and Izakaya (Barrack St Branch), Perth, Western Australia (Alissa and Don Eat Australia)

If Alissa would let me, I would eat ramen every day of the week. In a lot of ways its my perfect dish - noodles (my carb weakness), pork and/or fried chicken, and a broth seemingly invented by people trying to figure out how to make each slurp so rich in glutamate content that its an umami explosion. So when I discovered Zensaki have been doing ramen for years and I'd never noticed, this was a situation that needed to be rectified quickly. Would I discover a new worthy competitor for the title of 'Perth's Best Ramen?'

Located on Barrack St between the Hay and Murray St Malls, Zensaki do both a sushi train and an extensive a la carte menu divided into sections - Starters, Salads, Deep Fried Dishes, Grilled and Pan Fried Dishes, Skewer grilled, Bento sets and Ramen, Udon and Soba Noodles. 

Accompanying us for the meal was our friend Gita, who worked with Alissa in their theatre company The Duck House, and was her housemate before Alissa and I moved in together. Gita is an excellent cook and foodie, and as she is a vegan it meant we would get to see what how Zensaki would do catering for dietary requirements. 

As it was fairly late for dinner, Alissa and I decided to quell our hunger with an item from the sushi train. It was a soft shell crab roll topped with egg, prawn and sweet chilli sauce. As far as sushi goes it was at a decent standard, but nothing mind-blowingly good - I've definitely had better. The flavour combination seemed not particularly classically Japanese, and the egg in particular seemed strange as it was the texture I'd expect from an egg sandwich with mayo. It would have been better if it had been tamago, and with a different sauce instead of sweet chilli. As this was a one off sample of items from the sushi train we cannot give a full review of what their offerings are like overall, and I'd like to think it was more to do with a bad selection on our part than a necessarily bad sushi train selection in general. 

Gita ordered some Edamame beans for us to share. These were a nice salty snack, about the average standard for these healthy and addictively tasty beans. There is not much more you can do with a dish that is boiled or steamed beans with salt, and this was done well enough. 

My order was the 'Ultimate' Ramen with tonkotsu broth, from their choice of tonkotsu, miso, shoyu and shio. Since I didn't want the salty-sweet flavour of teriyaki sauce to affect the flavour of my broth and since I don't like bean sprouts, I chose to omit these items. The broth was sadly a bit lacklustre. I don't expect any ramen place to reach the kind of insanely porky gravy-like consistency of Gumshara in Sydney, but part of what makes tonkotsu such a delicious broth is how concentrate the flavours are and how the hours of boiling result in some kind of magical chemistry that gives it its that milky collagen-enriched consistency. Zensaki say their broth takes 24 hours to make, however they must be watering it down as this was a little thin, and a bit tasteless. 

Which is a shame, as they got everything else pretty much spot on. The chashu slices were amongst the best in Perth with a lovely melt in your mouth flavour that bested the chashu at Kai. The egg yolk was nice and half set and the karaage was tasty and remained crispy in spite of being in a broth. The noodles may not have been the best I've had, but they did have a nice springy consistency and were better than the non-ramen noodles Arigataya served us. Speaking of which; if only Arigataya's broth could be combined with everything else Zensaki do - that would really give Nao and Dosukoi a run for their money. 

Of the main dishes ordered, Alissa's was easily the best - Soft Shell Crab Udon Noodles Soup. Presentation alone as impressive, being served in a metal bowl on top of raised wooden rack. The 'in-house broth' tasted like a miso-soy that was quite nice with the udon noodles, which were fat and juicy as udon should be. Topping of deep fried soft shell crab had that satisfying crunch you expect from soft shell crab. Fewer components than the ramen, but they got everything right. 

I felt bad for Gita when I saw the Stir Fry Vegetables, as they did not look particularly tasty or well made. 'What's that on top?' Gita asked at the sight of the moving flakes sitting on top. 
'That's katsuobushi,' I said, 'and you'll want to remove those since its fish'.
Of course Zensaki were not to blame for the katsuobushi being on top as they didn't know that Gita was a vegan, but the low standard of the dish in general was very disappointing. Gita scraped the katsuobushi onto a side plate and I tried one of the carrots in the pile. Even encrusted in katsuobushi, the carrot was very bland and uninteresting. I regularly make stir fry at home and I could have done a better job, even when I can't be bothered and use pre-prepared veggies. I noticed Gita continuously pouring soy sauce on the vegetables before combining it with her bowl of rice. 
'Not enough soy?' I asked.
'Not enough of anything'

The Verdict: Good
I'm not sure what to make of Zensaki. On the one hand, they did a terrible Stir Fry Vegetables, a thin, tasteless tonkotsu broth and the one sushi train item we tried was good but not amazing. Conversely, they made a mean udon and got everything else right in the ramen. Perhaps they have such an extensive menu that they don't quality control all their dishes, and if Gita and I ordered better we would have had a more satisfying experience. Still, if its not good, it really shouldn't be on the menu and they should seriously rethink that stir fry. From a ramen standpoint, I'm wondering if Zensaki are just not tonkotsu specialists and that one of the other broths may be better. The first time we had Kai, the miso broth was disappointing yet the tonkotsu was a winner so it was a good thing we didn't give up on them. For this reason, I'd come back to Zensaki again as I'd like to give them a second chance. However, if I was gonna bring a vegetarian to a Japanese restaurant, Zensaki would not be the place. 

Zensaki Sushi & Izakaya on Urbanspoon

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