The thought of vegan ramen might be heresy to noodle purists. Hemp seeds and soy milk are surely no match for boiled pig parts and time-honoured tradition. But given the Japanese masters and ramen consultants behind RaRa Ramen’s secret tonkotsu recipe – which was handed down to Katie Shortland and Scott Gault to serve at their Redfern and Randwick RaRa outlets – are totally on board with the non-meat ramen recipe, perhaps tradition shouldn’t be the sole definer of what’s acceptable.
That, and the coronavirus outbreak that has already significantly impacted the city's dining scene, sure hasn’t stopped people queuing to get inside Lonely Mouth, Sydney’s first and only dedicated plant-based ramen bar.
The eatery has just opened on Australia Street in Newtown, in the spot previously home to fine-diner Oscillate Wildly, at a difficult time for the restaurant community and the country. While many thousands are self-isolating to mitigate the spread of Covid-19, businesses are struggling through their own existential crisis, many choosing to stay open as long as they are able to support their employees and preserve their livelihood.
"It will be trying times for many in the tourism and hospitality industries until this passes," says Gault. "Our main concern is keeping our wonderful team employed ... Takeaway has been discussed and we are definitely rolling it out at Randwick but are yet to see ... if the small kitchen at Newtown could handle it. After a week or two we should have a fair enough sample size to confirm if its viable."
When it comes to Sydney’s vegan-ramen scene, Gault and Shortland are well and truly at the tip of the spear. Their third outpost ladles out innovative plant-based broths which they say are on par with the best they found in Los Angeles, where they travelled early this year (LA is ground zero for vegan ramen).
“We flew out [Go-San and Hyodo-San, the ramen consultants who gave them the pork-broth tonkotsu recipe] from Japan three weeks ago to check on things,” says Gault. “They’re so excited by what we’re doing here, because the vegan-ramen scene in Japan isn’t as strong as it is in America. It’s a whole new approach for all of us.”
Lonely Mouth takes its name from the Japanese word kuchisabishii, which roughly means the longing to put something in your mouth, even if you’re not hungry. It’s tiny, and doesn’t have Redfern’s neon or Randwick’s noodle theatrics – just a whole lot of understated raw oak and devil’s ivy, with a low communal table in the centre of the room and high stools along the walls for counter-style dining.
The stars of this show are the three ramens (with more to come), which are chalked up on a blackboard opposite the bar. Each one shares the secret tare seasonings (the soup-broth flavouring) and signature thin Hakata-style noodles found in RaRa’s famous pork soups.
Top of the list is a hempseed-and-sunflower-based vegetable-broth ramen, which mimics the creaminess and umami of unctuous tonkotsu. The first bite mystifies because the junk of seitan (a vegan meat substitute made from hydrated gluten, the main protein found in wheat) tastes a lot like chashu (barbeque pork), which you get in a standard ramen, along with the noodles, nori, bamboo and shallots.
Next is a sesame-and-soy-milk tantanmen, which is both nutty and fiery. It’s served with punchy minced seitan (normally it’s pork mince) spiked with Sichuan spices, bok choy and black fungus. “We worked on the meat version with the masters back in Japan and just re-engineered it slightly to make it vegan. It’s almost identical,” says Gault. “That’s what we’re all about. We’re doing this not just for vegans, but for anyone who wants to enjoy a great ramen.” And finally, the one that started it all: RaRa’s miso broth topped with grilled tofu, sprouts, charred corn, purple cabbage, fungus and pickled bamboo.
You can simply un-vegan all of these by adding a free-range hen’s egg, but there’s probably more love for the house-made egg-free tomago (rolled omelette). The “whites” are made with soy, tofu and agar-agar (a jelly-like ingredient made from red algae, popular in Asian desserts), and betacarotene (the pigment found in carrots) gives it a rich orange yolk. It’s runny like the real thing by way of reverse spherification, a process used in molecular gastronomy. The eggy smell comes from black salt and other flavourings.
Simple izakaya-style sides will rotate every few weeks, but for now there’s pickled cucumbers, kimchi, cauliflower karaage (breaded and fried), and tempura corn flecked with numbing Sichuan pepper. The booze list is small, with five low-intervention wines, Suntory whisky and sake from Kyoto. Yulli’s Brews is about to release the house beer, the RaRa Lager, but until then there’s a raft of their tinned brews plus Asahi on tap.
The Japanese button-order system sadly wasn’t working for Broadsheet’s visit, but the other Japanese import sure was. Lonely Mouth’s auto-bidet toilet is a welcome addition to the neighbourhood at a time when toilet paper is scarce.
275 Australia Street, Newtown
Wed 12pm–2.30pm, 5.30pm–9.30pm
Thu & Fri 12pm–2.30 pm, 5.30pm–10 pm
Sat 12 pm–10pm
Sun 12 pm–5.30pm
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