Three years ago, Ricky Murai sat down for vegan ramen at Melbourne's Neko Neko that "blew me away", he says. In fact, it ended up changing his life.
He was so inspired by the soy-based ramen with fried tofu that he asked Neko Neko's owners – Saori and Tomoya Kawasaki – if he could open up a Sydney outpost.
Fast forward to March 2020, and Murai was ready to serve that dish from the newly launched Neko Neko Newtown in Sydney's inner west. He even added two more vegan noodle broths to the menu – a creamy tantanmen with soy mince and bok choy, plus a spicy tofu ramen with crushed nuts and shiitake mushrooms.
His kitchen was ready to serve potato croquette curries, miso eggplant teishoku sets and vegan gyoza, too.
There was just one hitch: the day he opened the restaurant was the same day the government banned all dine-in eating across Australia.
"It was not good timing," he says.
Not that long ago, he'd considered himself lucky. He'd found a great site after his first choice had fallen through (ironically, the initial location later became the address of Lonely Mouth, another vegan ramen joint).
"It was not good timing."
Neko Neko Newtown's home is now on King Street, in an area nicknamed 'Vegan Valley' because the strip features many plant-based eateries. "I saw so many vegan restaurants on this street," he says.
"We're next to Gigi, we're near Lentil As Anything and the vegan butcher. There are so many nice neighbours around here."
A few weeks before Neko Neko Newtown opened, everything seemed to be on track.
"We started the renovation in February," he says. "At that time, the coronavirus wasn't so big in Australia – only in China. I thought we'd be OK."
Upon launching a month later, COVID-19 had become a serious threat around the world, with Italy under a nationwide lockdown – and Australia not far behind.
Local restaurants had announced mass stand-downs and closures as businesses crumbled under tough government restrictions: first crowds over 500 were banned, then 100 and then restaurants could only serve one diner every four square metres. By the time Neko Neko Newtown opened in mid-March, you weren’t even allowed to eat in restaurants anymore. Only takeaway and deliveries were OK.
"I was worried," he says. "I'm still worried, but we have to deal with this situation and find a way to survive."
First, he had to scrap his original plan of having an opening party to celebrate the years he'd been plotting Neko Neko Newtown – this joyful act was no longer possible, given the ban on crowds.
"We just discreetly opened, we couldn't really announce to everyone 'yes, we are open!' That was disappointing. But many people came in. So many people were watching our construction and they were curious."
There were also fans of the original Melbourne Neko Neko who were keen to drop by.
But weekday trade has been tough, admits Murai, even though there's been a promising amount of people getting weekend takeout. So he's signing up for Uber Eats: "hopefully we can pick up some business".
But whether you're scanning Neko Neko Newtown's menu from your couch or at the restaurant's doors, consider its vegan ramen options, which resemble what you'd find at the original Melbourne outpost, with some subtle tweaks.
The signature shoyu ramen is made with a gluten-free soy sauce and tastes like the broth you find in agedashi tofu.
The vegan ramen noodles are made from tapioca and wheat, but you can get a gluten-free variety if you like. The tan tan ramen gets its creamy profile from a blend of tahini, soy milk and vegetable stock, while the spicy tofu broth gets its firepower from a house-made chilli oil base.
Fiery flavours are particularly popular with Westerners, says the restaurateur. "That's what I found, too, when I was working at Jugemu & Shimbashi," says Murai, who ran the North Sydney soba and teppanyaki restaurant for 12 years.
"We couldn't really announce to everyone 'yes, we are open!' That was disappointing. But many people came in."
He's keenly aware of customer tastes – it's why Neko Neko Newtown has pescetarian options alongside its vegan ramen, curry and gyoza.
Many customers are women, and they're happy to twirl noodles from seaweed and shiitake broths. Their boyfriends, however, are very vocal about such minimal protein. "If we only have the vegan stuff, they start complaining. That's why we thought we'd have some fish dishes as well, to make them happy."
Hence the swordfish burgers, prawn gyoza and teriyaki salmon bento bowls.
While Murai has made the menu as takeaway-friendly as possible, he looks forward to the day he can have a (much-delayed) launch party and serve diners inside his 40-seater restaurant.
"We haven't had anyone sit inside the restaurant, only our staff."
So for now, you can have the vegan ramen that blew Murai away in your own home.
But one day, you'll hopefully get to step inside Neko Neko Newtown and sit down to a bowl of noodle-filled broth, served straight from his kitchen.
Neko Neko Newtown
381 King St, Newtown NSW
(02) 8056 7705 (orders also available on 0401 390 853)
Tue–Sat midday-2.30pm, 5:30pm–8:30pm