Ramen. Omakase. In 2022, it is difficult to think of two words more likely to accelerate the resting heart rate of a Sydneysider (although ‘free rent’ or ‘endless sunshine’ might come close). The city’s fixation with the ever popular noodle soup is nothing new. In recent years, however, a legion of splashy Japanese diners devoted to elaborate seasonal tasting menus ('omakase' loosely means 'I’ll leave it up to you') has emerged, reigniting a fervour for sushi, sashimi, kushiyaki and tempura, as well as the degustation dining format.
Senpai Ramen is an attempt to unify all these ideas orchestrated by Chase Kojima, the California-born chef best known as the top brass at Sokyo (home to one of the most sought-after omakase bookings in town) and the force behind fast-casual concept Simulation Senpai. How much you enjoy it depends largely on your willingness to take it for exactly what it is – a casual and commendably affordable way to experience this style of eating.
The set menu comprises seven courses, including dessert and a thoughtfully portioned ramen of your choice. Those first four "courses" are more like three-bite morsels, delivered by well-meaning staff not one-by-one but in groups of two at rapid speed. So rapid, in fact, that if you book a solo spot there’s every chance you’ll be out the door in not much more than half the allocated 90-minute sitting time. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but a little breathing room wouldn’t hurt.
There are captivating moments: a sheet of unfathomably buttery Kagoshima A5 Wagyu beef draped over a clump of still-warm rice, say, or two small slices of firm-fleshed, whistle-clean white snapper sashimi freckled with sesame seeds. Certain choices, however, feel confused. How a slim, palm-sized fillet of miso-marinated Glacier 51 toothfish benefits from being served on a frilly butter lettuce leaf, in the style of san choi bau, remains a mystery. Much like the trio of mayonnaise, corn purée and yuzu kosho sauce that obscures the delicate sweetness of prawn meat stuffed inside a crisp-fried chicken wing.
And then there is the matter of the soup, which pledges allegiance to the new school of ramen you find at places like Chaco Ramen and Gaku Robata Grill. Two broths – a milky 12-hour pork paitan or a clear chicken chintan – form the base for the five options, which run the gamut from a classic tonkotsu to more elaborate numbers featuring smoked duck breast, chilli-miso butter, pork cheek and Hokkaido scallops. The pork broth could stand to have a bit more presence, but comes alive with the help of electrically seasoned pork mince and sansho chilli oil in a murky riff on tantanmen dubbed 'Spicy Tan Tan Black'.
Unlike at fancier omakase establishments, the five counter seats here do not afford a view of the chefs, who work behind panes of glass overlaid with a decal of a Japanese cityscape. An open kitchen would certainly add some excitement to proceedings and invigorate the coal-black and neon-lit 20-seat space, which looks something like the corner of a laser skirmish course or a waiting area for a futuristic escape room. Regardless of where you end up sitting, bookings are essential and so is a $40 deposit (although à la carte ramen is available on a walk-in basis for lunch).
Still, at $65 per head, it’s impressive how many top-drawer ingredients and luxurious touches weave their way into the condensed tasting menu, extending to the housemade soy sauce, short list of benchmark wines and custom ceramic soup bowls. Add up what you think it all costs, and there’s little doubt you’re getting more than what you pay for. The question is whether you believe it’s worth it.