We can hardly get a spot. The entire restaurant – all 20 seats – is bustling like a Tokyo subway carriage with added party drugs. But Ichibandori isn’t even officially open yet (there has been some warm up dinners) – that happens today, Wednesday February 6.
The reason all these people are here is because they’ve heard the rumour that one of Sydney’s best ramen chefs, Hideto Suzuki (Manpuku, has joined sushi-master Tomoyuki Matsuya of HaNa Ju-Rin to run a late-night ramen restaurant in Neutral Bay.
It’s all true of course. Well, sort of.
Suzuki and Matsuya are the only people in the kitchen and they’re both adamant this is a ramen restaurant. The only issue? There’s a conspicuous lack of ramen. There are two bowls on the two-page menu, and you can only get them after 9pm (although due to popularity, that may be changing). But this isn’t supposed to be like other ramen restaurants, they tell me.
While the aim elsewhere in Sydney is to achieve the thickest and most treacherously porky tonkotsu broth, Suzuki is focused on refinement. The signature here is a masterfully rich but refined chicken and pork broth that’s generously loaded up with a rotating list of stellar toppings.
Today’s toppings include grilled chicken (skin-on), soft-boiled egg, micro herbs and an assortment of charcoal-grilled mushrooms. It’s about what you’d expect when you give a former Manpuku head chef free rein to do whatever he wants. (Though there’s only one ramen on offer when we visit, diners can expect a second bowl after the official open that will change daily.)
Ichibandori’s ramen is priced at $25. Good ramen, Suzuki says, is not a cheap product. It’s been pigeonholed that way, much like other Asian foods, but the ramen he makes (and he hopes other people will make) is created with the best ingredients, many imported from Japan.
The rest of the menu (available from 5pm to 8pm) is Matsuya’s domain. It’s not the intricate sushi offering he’s famous for though – that’s too formal for a boisterous setting like this, he says. It’s Japanese bar food – gyoza, fried chicken and charred morsels from the robata grill. Some items, such as the beautifully succulent king mushroom and the young corn grilled in its husk, are very simple. Others are more complex, such as the buttery miso-grilled cod and the semi-dried octopus with truffle. Matsuya makes a point to tell us he’s not here to make teriyaki chicken, sushi rolls or tempura.
The venture was Matsuya’s idea. He recently left his solo omakase post at HaNa Ju-rin and spotted a lease sign at Ichibandori (Suzuki learned to make ramen here 17 years ago when it was Ramen Kenta). He saw the empty evening streets and called Suzuki to ask if he wanted to collaborate on a late-night ramen project.
The partnership was born. With its tiny space, dark interior, utter lack of a main entrance and low-risk sub-lease, the venue seemed ideal for something fun and loose. The two chefs have nailed that brief; the only issue is how long they’ll be there. That is something nobody knows.
4/81–91 Military Road, Neutral Bay
Mon to Sat 5pm–11.30pm