Can you ever have too much of a good thing?
Ok, guilty! I’m behaving exactly like the quintessential Sydney foodie i.e. only dining at a restaurant because it’s new! (Meanwhile giving up on an opportunity to dine at a proven winner.) I posed this question to my wife the other day: “Now that we’ve eaten at a few places over the past months, is there a restaurant deserving of our repeat patronage?” And her answer was “Yes, Yasaka Ramen”. And instead my blogger mind processed ‘something something ramen’ (cause each meal must be a bloggable opportunity’ so I instead took her (in reality she took me) to Tontaro Ramen Honten- the latest ramen joint to join the already crowded Sydney ramen scene.
Tontaro Ramen Honten (or Tontaro Ramen Headquarters for those who are curious about the English translation) – is the flag-ship store for Chef Jun Toyoda (his best known store being O-san in the Dixon Street food court). His latest venture is to introduce to Sydney a different style of tonkotsu (soup-base), moving away from the thicker soup bases which Sydney-siders are more accustomed to, to a thinner soup-base but with the same level of flavour- thanks to using the more premium (and expensive) marrow-laden pork shin bones to create the broth. Admittedly I’ve only learnt all of this after dining at Tontaro Ramen Honten this afternoon, only learning of these facts while fact-checking for this post. This explains a lot of things. Haaha.
But before diving deeper into the food, let’s back-track to the start of the experience….. Tontaro Ramen Honten is a canteen-style restaurant situated on Sussex Street, nearish to the Sussex-Liverpool Street intersection. As soon as you enter the store you’re greeted by staff behind a service counter; inevitably there will be first-time customers standing off to the side studying the menus (i.e. us), as the ramen choices are varied and plentiful, and unfamiliar to most (because of Toyoda San’s aims to introduce to us a whole new range of soups!). After knitting my eyebrows in confusion with the majority of the menu, I settled on the Seabura ramen due to the promise of extra pork fat in the soup ($16.50), while my wife ordered the Stamina ramen ($17).
After making payment, head to the left hand portion of the store and find yourself a table in the adjoining canteen style dining area. If you’re dining alone, you can elect to dine at one of the solitary dining booths (picture a polling booth with partitions to your left and right), designed for folks who just want to concentrate on their noodles (although you can fold the side partitions back, revealing your adjacent diner- just like ‘Perfect match’….. “You’ve heard them slurp, now meet Contestant number 1!”). But for those who aren’t dining alone, you can elect seating from one of 3 rows of closely packed in tables.
Table water is a self-service station, and in less than 10 minutes the service staff bring-out your bowls of piping hot Ramen on serving trays, thanking you for your patience. Arigatou gozaimasu.
The soup is like super piping hot, so after blowing on it to cool it down, I took my first taste………Hmmmm ,at first taste the soup tasted just like any other tonkotsu I’ve had in the past and the ramen was the thin variety (our personal preference is for the thicker noodle). The protein which came with my dish was chicken, which had been diced into little cubes, so I guess you can say our first impressions were underwhelming. And I was really really hoping that I’d like it! The stand-out element to the dish was the texture of the bamboo shoots ….. Yeah, not a good sign. But the one saving grace for the dish, was the fact that as the shavings of pork fat had a chance to melt into the soup, the tonkotsu flavour became richer and more complex (the pork fat at first were white flecks floating on-top of the soup). Eventually I did chase down pieces of the chicken, but unfortunately due to their size (you can almost describe them as morsels), they were overcooked and tough.
My wife’s Stamina ramen was slightly different from mine, her soup was a darker colour, the chicken was shredded instead of being cubed, and her egg was a 60/60 egg (unfortunately cold at first) rather than the half hardboiled egg which I got. But even with those slight variations between our dishes, her evaluation was much like mine, the chicken was overcooked and tough, and the soup-base wasn’t remarkable.
As we were nearing the end of our meals (almost 1.30pm) the place was at full capacity and there were people who had already made their orders and were hanging around waiting for tables to free-up. Not wanting to hog a table longer than necessary, we tried to eat faster but tell you the truth, this ramen actually felt like a bit of a chore to finish (also not a good sign, as when you have something good, you want more? Right? Not less. And the portions weren’t particularly large either). My wife commented at this moment that she had worked out why her dish was called ‘Stamina ramen’, as it took some stamina to finish it- so it wasn’t just me feeling this way!
In the end, you really can have too much of a ‘good thing’! Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t like the food was bad or anything but it was just unremarkable after the hype “A Deluxe Ramen Joint from a Chef with a Cult Following” was the title of the November 2018 Broadsheet article. When compared head-to-head with other Ramen stores, they just come off second, third, even fourth best! So for these reasons our end score is 3 from 5 stars (1.5 stars from 3 for Food (the soup was quite salty, so much so that we came home and downed a bottle of our home brew Kombucha, needing the acidity to break-down the salty taste in our mouths); 0.5 from 0.5 for Service (as all the staff were courteous); 0.5 from 0.5 for Atmosphere (as they were playing a Jamiroquai like album and the constant turnover of customers gave the otherwise plain restaurant life); and 0.5 from 1 for Value for money ($17 for Ramen is getting pretty exxy, considering it’s just chicken and not a premium type of meat)).
Would we be back again soon? Unfortunately I don’t think so. Because the next time we’re in the mood for Ramen, there are 3-4 other places on the top of our list before we’d circle back to Tontaro Ramen Honten.
Tontaro Ramen Honten- Sunday 17 February (3 Stars).
PH: (02) 8317 6375
10-11 339 Sussex Street, Sydney NSW
Mon-Sun 12noon – 3pm, 5.30pm – 9pm