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Central, Hong Kong
Hidden behind a heavy dark wood doorway that bears no sign of its name, Ronin is a trendy locale with same cool, casual vibe that’s in line with its sister restaurant Yardbird. The modern stunner is decorated with an eclectic assemblage of chic furnishings. A long wood counter paired with retro steel stools can seat about 12, with a parallel standing bar against the wall to form a drink rail. It is the attention to details, from the tailor-made leather coasters and disposable chopsticks made with polished wood, that make a difference. Staff are casual in their t-shirt and jeans, while chef-owner Matt Abergel shuffles through the crowds still wearing his Yardbird uniform. The space may seem claustrophobic at first, but the eclectic mix of lounge music and chatter from the cool-looking crowd easily sexes up the atmosphere, which might help people sitting at the bar, in front of the black wall, forget how cramped they actually are. Those who are seated along the back half of the counter, facing the open bar and rows of artisanal sake and whisky bottles, are more lucky as they can banter with the staff who craft cocktails in front of them.
Ronin’s menu is seafood-centered and changes from every few days to daily, featuring fresh ingredients from the local market. From the single page menu (which includes a date stamp) you will find interpretations and riffs off izakaya-style plates, divided into three sections: “raw”, “smaller” and “bigger”. A welcome bite of crispy bamboo shoot marinated in orange juice was presented to whet our appetite. We started off the meal proper with Ebisu rock oysters, which are served chilled, chopped into bite-size pieces and laid with slices of fresh, moist wakame. The result was a burst of moreish brininess. Saba mackerel sashimi with persimmon is petite, but very tasty. Our uni dish was a disappointment – we liked the dainty look of the specimen sitting on a bed of fresh nori, encircled by battered seaweed crumbs. As recommended by the staff, we stirred and mixed everything together before eating, but we suggest you not do the same; the saltiness of seaweed overwhelms any sweetness from the sea urchin. The whitebait shiso tempura is an instant favourite: fresh, tender fish filets are wrapped with shiso leaf, then coated in a light, crisp batter; a magical combination of freshness and botanical fragrance. The tempura is served along with a black sesame salt – it’s finger licking good but not otherwise required for the tempura. Moving on to hot (bigger) dishes, we tried the signature market fish karaage. The catch of the day was red snapper and the whole fish was deep-fried to crispy goodness. The fish bone can be eaten from head-to-tail, with a handful of fish nuggets made from the fish meat sitting beautifully on top. The nuggets had moist and tender flesh, but with the heavy-handed seasoning, you really don’t need the accompanying yuzu kosho mayo dip. If you’re looking for some substance, Ronin also serves up one or two carb dishes. Our unagi (eel) chirashi rice is a tasty option, a traditional rendition of unadon. Here, the rice is blended with kinome and sanshō, with a touch of acidity from the pickled cucumber slices. The eel is cut into small square filets, each piece beautifully seared to a give a crust with smokiness. The portion of the rice is not huge, just enough for two to get a couple of spoonfuls, but we were full and satisfied from the preceding dishes by this point. Ronin serves no dessert but you can opt for the bittersweet coffee liquor, a homemade coffee infused shochu, to end the night.
Ronin houses a well-structured drink list offering selective whiskies, sake, wines, beers, liquors and cocktails. A clean, simple layout indicates the origin of each beverage. The Yoshinosuge no taru sake from Nara is grassy and peppery, a distinctive choice of sake by the glass that goes well with most dishes. The drink menu also boasts a serious range of old rarity whiskies from closed distilleries and some homemade blends. Beers are the perfect match with tempura dishes and Ronin offers some rarely seen labels such as Nøgne from Norway in addition to Japanese craft beers. The cocktail list sounds equally sexy and delicious from a shochu and cocoa infused Old Fashioned to a Japanese Cocktail blending brandy with umeshu.
Staffs are friendly, motivated and familiar with the regularly changing menu, but can be more assertive about their recommendations. Some waiters are not so well-versed with the drinks list yet, either. Everyone is fast on their feet to ensure the operation is efficient: food delivery is timely, and water is always refilled. However, drinkers along the bar blocking the narrow space could make it difficult to flag down their attention at times.
A meal for two fares at about HK$1,000 if you just order one drink, but the dishes and drink varietals may tempt you to spend more at the bar. The raw dishes are petite, but we also had a whole fresh snapper for just HK$160. Overall we think the price is reasonable for a seafood meal in such a trendy location.