Friday, 25 October 2013

Shop Ramen - Collingwood

Shop Ramen - 329 Smith Street, Collingwood - was a place I'd had my eye on for some time. East Asian noodle dishes - as most vegos will attest - are sort of a 'forbidden fruit' in the vegetarian world. Whenever I see someone hoe into a bowl of noodles, my salivary glands immediately kick into action. However, if you believe that most "vegetarian" options on offer at your local noodle house are kosher - so to speak - you are simply kidding yourself. Think about the stock people, think about the stock! At Shop Ramen, the biggest draw card is that the vegetarian option is spruiked as being made from a vegan, cashew nut stock. Boom! There it is, food's 'Berlin Wall' just got torn down!

To say "I went to Shop Ramen BEFORE it was cool" would be inaccurate, as the massive line out the door for a table at 7:30pm attested - not to mention the countless zines to have already posted about it. Yep, this place is already quite a local favourite. The set-up is simple: a few intimate short tables line the wall, with a long communal table down the middle. All are well serviced with condiments such as sesame, finely ground pepper, hot sauce, and shichimi. The long counter houses a few extra seats, as well as a pasta-maker used by the uber-friendly staff to churn out fresh noodles in front of you as you await your order.
Pasta maker and fresh bunched noodles
The menu is simple with minimal fuss. The vegetarian starter is a smoked tofu bun($4): a small, rectangular slab of smoked tofu covered with a drizzling of the tangy 'special sauce', sitting comfortably alongside some thinly sliced pickled carrot, coriander, and various seeds, all enveloped in a fluffy, warm bun. Very fresh-tasting, quite impressive. Not overly sizeable, but enough to whet the appetite. Next up is the main event: the vegetarian cashew milk ramen($13). The fresh noodles are served with a few of those rectangular slabs of tofu, shitake mushrooms, thinly chopped sticks of zucchini, and the odd arrowhead of an asparagus. I also went for the optional 'garlic bomb' - the addition of a roasted bulb of garlic for an extra $1. All of these ingredients are submerged amidst a healthy dosage of the milky broth.

So, the verdict? The best way I can think to describe it is inoffensive. The cashew milk stock adds an interesting creamy texture to the broth, but I found the dish to be lacking in liveliness. A bit of experimenting with the various condiments certainly helped matters - black sesame is a must for every kitchen table - however my feelings are that it should have had more of a stand-alone flavour to it. Given my lofty expectations, I was a bit underwhelmed.

To finish off, I treated myself to a dessert of the salted caramel and coconut shake($8). It comes served in a tall glass, the inside walls of which are coated generously with caramel syrup, and finished with a red and white candy-cane striped paper straw. Very kitschy/1950s diner-esque, cute. Quite tasty, very sweet. I actually got hints of cheesecake from it.

Shop Ramen has quickly established itself amongst the burgeoning group of popular eateries that have popped up on Smith Street in recent years, and it has done a lot right. An interesting, succinct menu; food made fresh to order in front of you; and helpful, friendly staff - yep, they even provided sympathy laughter to some apparently unfunny jokes delivered by yours truly - which creates an inviting atmosphere that draws you in. However, it needs to back up all these positives with what it delivers to the table. The highlight for me was the tofu bun. The shake is delicious, but pricey. And those straws are just impractical. They become soggy and useless within minutes. The ramen fails to reach the heights I'd hoped it would and, if you manage to finish the whole bowl, can be quite bloating. And, in spite of what they may say on Broadsheet or TimeOut, a bowl of ramen does NOT go well with a sweet, syrupy milkshake - personally, I found the mere suggestion that it would idiotic (take that bigger media!). Even with a healthy break in between the two, I was feeling the after-effects for the remainder of the evening.

A place with a lot of promise and an already huge following. But, in my opinion, not quite there yet.

Score deducted one mark due to lingering ill-effects from the shake two days later

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