Recently, I was delighted to discover someone had done a Google search with the keywords being 'ministry of gluttony ramen'.
'We've made it!' I jokingly exclaimed to Alissa, 'our reputation precedes us!'
With this in mind, it was surprising then to discover it had been a long 5 months since our last ramen-related post, especially considering how strongly ramen figured up to that point. It's not like we haven't been eating ramen mind you - I eat a bowl at least once a fortnight thanks to our proximity to Kai in Bull Creek - however, timing and circumstance has prevented us from checking out many of the places we haven't been to, or to try some of our favourites yet again. 5 months is far too long a time, and a recent visit to Nao gave us an opportunity for atonement.
Nao were one of the pioneers of ramen in Perth, and have become so renowned for their house made noodles and umami-rich miso broth that the place invariably has a queue of diners waiting outside during peak times. We used to frequent Nao fairly often when Alissa lived in North Perth, however by the time of our visit it had been over a year since we'd last dined there. Located as it is on Murray St in the Perth CBD, their Monday-Thursday 5:30pm closing time has made it difficult for us non-CBD workers to pop in for a return visit, and one attempted Saturday lunch proved to be a disappointment when we realised it was actually on Sundays that they do their weekend trade! After months sitting high on our wishlist, a Friday night with no plans gave us the perfect excuse to pop in for a delicious bowl.
Many of Perth's ramen joints seem to put little to no effort into appearance - take for example the spartan surrounds of Dosukoi in Fremantle, and Kai's anti-aesthetic design is utilitarianism at its most pure. Decor doesn't matter when the food is really good, but Nao is notable for being one of the nicest looking ramen-centric restaurants in Perth, with the simple but effective murals painted on the walls imbuing the space with a warm and welcoming tone.
Alissa's is a bit of a Takoyaki obsessive, so we decided to share an entree plate as a starter. Visually the Takoyaki Balls immediately impressed, being considerably larger than average and topped with umami-boosting bonito flakes and finely sliced nori. The size ended up being a bit of a mixed blessing, as while the larger scale allowed for more of the fluffy batter interior alongside generous chunks of octopus, it also meant that they were a little difficult to eat; being larger that a single mouthful they really should have been served with side plates. Still, these were well made and full of flavour, being better than average Takoyaki.
Of course the main attraction of Nao is their ramen. With my eyes on something a little unusual, Alissa decided to go with the classic Miso Ramen as a point of contrast. Nao offer quite and impressive array of customisation in their menu, including standard, chilli and spinach ramen noodles, and additional toppings. On this occasion Alissa went with the standard noodles accompanied by an extra serving of garlic and pieces of chicken. Though it would greatly disappoint my culinary hero David Chang, Alissa and I are definitely members of the Tonkotsu cult and I generally feel a little let down when having to order a different broth base. Where some places make Miso, Shio and Shoyu broths that are thin and insipid, Nao's Miso broth is so umami-rich that it can hold its own against all but the most intense tonkotsu broths, and tasting it reminded me why Miso broths got me into ramen in the first place. Good broths need good noodles to go with them, and the springy, toothsome bite of Nao's made ramen noodles make it the best we've had in Perth. Having tried the chilli and spinach variations in the past, I've found them to be more distractions than enhancements, but given the number of people who order them your mileage may vary. Finally, the toppings of Chashu and Chicken were good if not mindblowing, with Karaage being preferable to the Teriyaki Chicken served here.
I've recently been really enjoying cold Udon noodles at Kai, and its made me appreciate Udon - a Japanese noodle that I've historically liked the least. With this in mind, I decided to vary my usual Nao order of Spicy Miso Ramen by instead ordering it as Tsukemen - the ramen variant where noodles are served separately to the broth and are dipped in as you go. Other than the Spicy Miso Broth and the standard serving strength of garlic, my order was identical to Alissa's, however the eating experience was world's apart - more akin to the make your own process of eating Bun Cha than standard ramen. All the components other than the broth - including the slice of Chashu and the Chicken - were served cold, requiring each bite to be constructed on the plate before being dipped into a Miso broth that was as equally delicious as Alissa's with the addition of a spicy kick. Personally, I would have preferred if the meat had been warmed slightly rather than being served cold however it was not a deal breaker, and dipping the ramen noodles into the broth with every bite gave the dining experience a sense of immediacy and greater control of the noodles than usual. For my tastes however, I felt that while I've preferred dipping versions of Udon and Soba, and prefer my Wanton Noodles with the soup separate, I like the way the noodles are kept warm in a ramen broth and are imparted with the broth's flavour as they sit in the bowl. I can imagine this working better with a super thick and sticky tonkotsu broth like the style served at Gumshara Ramen in Sydney, but as much as the Tsukemen was enjoyable, I would have enjoyed it all the more as regular all-in-the-one-bowl ramen.
The Verdict: Excellent
Alissa and I really enjoyed our return visit to Nao; it reminded us that a Miso broth done right can be as delicious and fulfilling as the milky thickness of a Tonkotsu broth - and without the heart attack-inducing levels of fat at that! The noodles themselves are without a doubt the best Alissa and I have had in Perth, especially since the decline of the noodle quality at Arigataya. Living a 5 minute drive away from Kai would probably keep Alissa and I away from regular bowls of ramen at Nao, however for noodle aficionados working in the Perth CBD this is a place worth queuing for.