For regular readers of the Ministry, I don't think its any secret that I'm a little obsessed with ramen. To me, great ramen is a truly wondrous thing; a surprising combination of culinary skill and precision that nevertheless seems so effortless when served up, and results in an utterly delicious, casual and approachable eating experience that is generally fairly affordable. If arteries and weight gain were not an issue, I'd probably live on daily steaming bowls of tonkotsu broth and ramen noodles, and its a dish I always have to try when visiting new places. When we arrived in Hong Kong as part of Alissa and Don Eat Asia, Ichiran Ramen was our first port of call, so it seemed only fitting that the first meal of our Melbourne trip would be a ramen joint.
Lunch at Ramen Ya had been the plan, however in spite of receiving an email stating they would be open on Good Friday, we arrived to find the place closed. I remembered Kokoro Ramen was just around the corner and after a quick check of Google Maps and a five minute walk, Alissa and I found ourselves at a thankfully open Kokoro Ramen. Having received strong recommendations in the Good Food Under $30 Guide (even being voted in the top 10 'Quick City Bites'), Kokoro had been on our itinerary to check out later in the week so it was an easy swap-in for Ramen Ya.
Arriving as we did just after midday, the place was pretty packed with noodle-loving diners, and the restaurant's design featured a very modern Asian vibe, complete with paper lantern lights and screen room dividers...
... with the walls filled with used sake bottles on display.
To the left of the main kitchen and counter area is a room with a ramen making machine for diners to view the store's ramen being made in-house; perfect for a ramen fanboy like myself to geek out over.
With quite a few different permutations of their four broths on offer, there is an informative board to help ramen novices pick what ramen they would like to order...
... and for super fans, there are even Kokoro Ramen T-Shirts for sale!
Being quite busy and with most of their tables arranged for groups of four or more, Alissa and I were ushered to the long bar seating along the right wall of the restaurant.
Entering the world of ramen can be a bit bewildering for a newcomer, and Kokoro's menu is probably the most accessible introduction to ramen styles I've seen. On offer are four broths and information about the regional styles they are made in: Tokyo-style Shoyu (soy-based), Sapporo-style Miso, Hakata-style Tonkotsu Shoyu and Nagahama Tonkotsu Shio. The special, deliciously porky flavour of Tonkotsu broths make them our favourite style of ramen broth, and so it was a particularly special treat to be able to choose between two tonkotsu styles. As an added bonus, Kokoro offer a customisation system similar to Ichiran, meaning you can add/remove different toppings, choose between thick and thin noodles and even how soft/hard the noodles are or how salty the broth is. They even offer Kae-Dama for $1, the practice in Hakata of offering a second serve of noodles for the hungry/greedy noodle fiend.
Having decided to go with the slices of pork belly in our ramen, Alissa and I decided to try their Karaage as an entree. This was in a similar style to the light, thinly battered Karaage of Jun in Perth, and featured a similarly refined gingery flavour. Unfortunately, our enjoyment of the dish was reduced slightly due to the Karaage having been served a bit a bit cold, and hence it had a reduced crispiness and a less that optimum temperature. Regardless of this weakness, I could see that it would have been a better then average Karaage if it had been served hot and fresh, however Jun's still remains my favourite.
Kokoro and also renowned for their Gyoza, and offer it in serves of 6 or 12. Thankfully sanity prevailed over greediness, and we only ordered the serve of 6. The gyoza was of very good to excellent quality comparable to our local favourite Kai; filled with tasty, juicy pork and fried without tasting overly greasy and oily.
But of course the main reason we were here was for the ramen, and I was so excited to be eating Hakata Tonkotsu Shoyu Ramen with slices of Pork Belly that I ordered a greedy and admittedly unnecessary Kae-Dama serve of noodles on the side. I've said it before and I'll say it again; the Hakata-style is hands-down my favourite style of ramen and this was the best version of this style I've had in Australia. I find the Hakata-style more refined than other styles of tonkotsu (in particular the insanely thick Kyoto-style tonkotsu), and the thin noodles work well with the slight stickiness of the collogen-rich broth. The pork belly slices were cut into thick chunks rather than the thin slices I'm used to, however they were so deliciously melt-in-your-mouth it didn't really matter. With the addition of wood ear mushrooms, this was seriously excellent ramen, that would only be slightly behind my all-time favourite bowl of Hakata-style ramen at Ichiran in Hong Kong and the Kyoto-style at Gumshara in Sydney.
Alissa's Nagahama Tonkotsu Shio Ramen was very similar to the Hakata-style, and probably is made with the same master tonkotsu broth and then finished with salt (shio) rather than the shoyu (soy sauce) used in the final Hakata broth. As you'd expect, this was slightly saltier and slightly less complex than the Hakata style, while still maintaining a certain refinement. Alissa's favourite part of a bowl of ramen is the broth, and she drank spoonful after spoonful of the broth in utter enjoyment. I would say the Hakata broth had the edge on the Nagahama but only ever so slightly, and I would have been more than happy to have eaten this bowl instead. Its rare to find a ramen joint that does two styles at a high quality level, and this made the Kokoro Ramen experience all the more impressive.
The Verdict: Excellent
While Gumshara in Sydney remains my favourite ramen in Australia, the refinement of Kokoro's Hakata and Nagahama-style tonkotsu broths make them far more approachable and easier to recommend for more regular consumption, and were the best ramen bowls Alissa and I have eaten since Ichiran in Hong Kong. With an educational menu that would be really helpful for first-timers and a level of customisation that I've rarely seen in Australia, Kokoro sets a strong example for other ramen joints to follow in terms of catering for both newbies and seasoned ramen addicts alike. I'd have to try Ramen Ya again for a more objective comparison and I'm yet to try the well-regarded ramen of Don Too, however Kokoro would definitely stand as a strong contender for best ramen in Melbourne due to the authenticity of their Hakata broth alone. A very strong recommendation from the Ministry.