Thursday, 8 May 2014

Shop Ramen, Fitzroy, Victoria (Alissa and Don Eat Australia)

One of the great things about writing a blog is that you get to share your favourite meals with others. Its nice to know that I've help point people I don't even know in the right direction of great Roast Goose Noodles in Hong Kong, or the incredible fusion food of East Indies in Cochin, India. Though not specifically a blog for the gluten intolerant or for vegans, I do like to point people with dietary requirements in the right direction of satisfying meals as I feel no one should have to settle for boring food. So its one of the great food tragedies that up until now, I've never been able to share a bowl of ramen with vegan friends. I tried at Ramen Ya in Melbourne and had a decidedly un-vegan egg placed on the rice our friends Jake and Tegan had ordered, and the horrible stir fry served to our friend Gita at Zensaki in Perth was topped with bonito flakes. All these times my friends have had to go with a non-ramen alternative while I waxed lyrical about how incredible ramen is. When I heard that Shop Ramen made a Vegetarian Ramen that could easily be made Vegan by removing the marinated egg, it was the perfect opportunity to introduce my friends Jake and Tegan to a dish that is more than just a favourite, but an obsession (see here, here, here, here, here, here and here).

One of the many exciting eateries to have opened on Smith St in the last few years, Shop Ramen's vibe is no frills hipster chic with a menu that focuses on variations on three dishes: steamed buns, ramen and dessert pies, along with a drinks list that runs the gamut from shakes to sake. Its similar to the early Momofuku Noodle Bar menu in a sense, though with some of their own unique touches.

While Salted Caramel and Coconut, and the Vegan Mango and Coconut Shake sounded amazing, we were all hedging our bets that we'd have space for dessert down the road at Gelato Messina. Alissa went with kombucha (the hipster beverage of the moment), a drink we had for the first time at Co-op Dining in Perth. A fermented tea beverage, Alissa went with the Mint, Apple and Green Tea flavour. Fizzier and less cloudy than the (probably) made in house version at Co-op, I enjoyed a few refreshing sips of the drink before returning to my far less exciting tap water.

With my beloved Tonkotsu absent from the menu and the Miso on offer being a Korean offering with beef brisket and kimchi that didn't really appeal to me, I went with a Shoyu Ramen served with pork belly, oyster mushrooms, spring onion, marinated egg, watercress and a sheet of nori. Shoyu is a lot lighter than the sticky, thick broth of Tonkotsu, and while its not my favourite style of ramen, this was a pretty good example of a Shoyu broth, with a nice saltiness and the trademark umami flavour that makes a good bowl of ramen. Better than the broth were the handmade noodles which we witnessed the staff making just before they opened, and the toppings were pretty much perfect; the pork belly served instead of the usual thinly sliced chashu had the expected fatty goodness I've come to know and love, and the marinated egg's yolk was perfectly half-set as its supposed to be. I'd certainly rate it behind something like the Hakata-style ramen I had at Ichiran or Kokoro, but as a healthier alternative it certainly has its merits.

I was most intrigued to see what Shop Ramen would come up with for their Vegetarian Ramen, as it sounded amazing on the menu - organic tofu, broccoli, pickled shiitake mushrooms, edamame beans, cress, marinated egg (removed in this instance for vegan purposes), cashew milk, sesame. The dish came beautifully presented, with the vegetables piled enticingly in the middle of the bowl. I asked Jake and Tegan if I could try the broth, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it actually tasted quite a bit like a thinner version of tonkotsu with a strong umami taste. Whoever thought this up did a great job of finding vegetable sources of umami to approximate the flavours and taste of a ramen broth, and while it certainly is not authentic, the closeness in flavour to more standard ramen broths makes it feel like it is. Besides, new ramen styles are always appearing in Japan, so why not in Melbourne? Jake and Tegan loved it, especially enjoying the pickled mushrooms and the edamame beans.

Alissa was not so hungry, and decided to instead be the guinea pig for the steamed buns. First up was the Pork Belly bun, basically a carbon copy of the Momofuku bun except for the use of 'bulldog' sauces that I'm guessing is Korean bulgogi sauce. Alissa and I love pork buns so the deliciously fatty slice of pork belly and the soft bun definitely appealed to our taste buds, however we both felt that Wonderbao's Pork Belly Bao was a better take on the same idea as it was more generous in the pork department and just a better bun overall.

Alissa was more impressed by the Brisket & Kimchi Bun. Slices of beef brisket were served with kimchi, peanuts, coriander and japanese mayo, and the more complex and unique flavour combination made it the better of the two. With the appealing sourness of the kimchi, the nutty crunch of the peanuts and the rich flavour of Japanese mayo I agreed with Alissa's appraisal, even if we would both usually rate pork buns ahead of beef.

While I didn't try it, Jake and Tegan also shared the Smoked Tofu Bun, consisting of smoked tofu, pickled carrot, coriander, nuts and seeds and a 'special sauce'. Another vegan selection on their menu, Jake and Tegan did enjoy the buns and based on the description it definitely sounded like Shop Ramen understood how to make the flavours of vegetarian dishes punchy enough to compete with those that were meat based.

The Verdict: Very Good
Shop Ramen's Shoyu broth was a very enjoyable bowl of ramen, but as good as the toppings were I'm yet to have a Shoyu that can compete with the best bowls of Tonkotsu and Miso ramen I've had. The real draw for me is the vegetarian and vegan friendly offerings on the menu; Shop Ramen are doing a great service to the community by taking the basic form of ramen and the Momofuku bun and finding creative solutions to delivering them meat free. While a trip to Gelato Messina meant skipping their shakes and the impressive sounding Umeboshi Plum, Cream Cheese and White Chocolate Pie, the fact I now have a place to take vegan friends to in Melbourne means I'd be more than happy to come back and see what else Shop Ramen has in store.

Shop Ramen on Urbanspoon

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