Hong Kong PR machines, take your cues from Yardbird's Matt Abergel and Lindsay Jang. This is a team which knows how to keep things hip and happening. Since their rock 'n' roll yakitori spot shook the city's dining scene a mere two years ago, the dynamic duo collaborates again on Ronin. And it has all the parts to stay the hottest dinner ticket in town for months to come.
A way for Abergel to ease away from the loud, in-your-face vibe of Yardbird, Ronin is barely conspicuous. It occupies the soft, quiet swoop of On Wo Lane with nary a sign on its neutral-toned sliding door and squeezing only about 20 diners into its narrow cave of a dining room (be sure to secure one of the four seats facing the bar or else you'll get stuck eating against a wall). Its exclusivity will only make the scenesters clamour more over a sought-after reservation (which Ronin takes via email).
It's also designed as a culinary playground for Abergel to stretch his Japanese cooking techniques using the city's freshest seafood. The menu shifts daily and the restaurant's cool staff highly encourage alcoholic accompaniments to the dishes – from the Yardbird-labelled sake to artisanal spirits, or even something from Ronin's whisky collection.
A small cup of market chips ($38) – yams, bamboos and potatoes fried and coated in black sugar – gives our virgin visit a sweet start. Off the raw menu, we sample the three-piece sashimi platter ($178). The tai sea bream and the shima aji are lovely cuts of fish. Our favourite of the trio would have to be the squid sashimi with aonori and cucumber – smooth and creamy to the chew. However, the overall lukewarmness of the platter throws us off a bit. And then there's the uni nori ($200), which raised eyebrows when chef Abergel tested it out in Yardbird a while ago. Unfortunately, here, we find it a bit underwhelming as the uni gets shut out by the overpowering seasoned breadcrumbs and seaweed.
The geoduck clam salad ($110), tossed with cucumbers and chichimi vinaigrette, and the napa cabbage salad ($80) with yuzu and namasu, both prove to be guiltless delights. Each dish is refreshing and the quality of the ingredients shines.
There are plenty of fried dishes on the menu at Ronin. The smoked silverfish tempura ($90), yellow snapper karaage ($220), fried quail ($150) and leather jacketfish tempura ($120) all crackle on our table. The silverfish – accompanied by black sugar mayo – emanates a hickory woodsy smell and flavour. Other fried dishes also satisfy but here's the thing: with fried dishes, after you order a couple, they all start tasting the same (albeit with different flavoured dipping sauces). So we dive into the kagoshima beef ($380), swirling sukiyaki-style in maitake mushrooms and a plump yellow egg yolk. This is the perfect relief from our fried fish-eating. As the sweet mirin sauce and egg yolk drizzle off the perfectly raw slices of succulent beef, there's a buttery and almost milky texture to the dish. We ache for seconds even when our stomachs scream no.
No desserts are offered at Ronin – just more drinks – and the bartender offers us a swig of coffee that's undergone a month-long infusion. It's a tasty kick but makes us want to hunt down the nearest ice cream shop after we've paid.
Ronin carries the same Yardbird stamp of warm service and swingy, anything-goes vibe, and has amped the class up a bit with fancier finger foods, fancier drinks and even a fancier dim mirrored bathroom that could give dragon-i a run for its money. We hate to compare but, unfortunately, what Ronin is doing isn't revolutionary like Yardbird, by any means. The scene and the supper is impressive but it will be a tough task trying to fly out of Yardbird's shadows. Janice Jann
Market chips $38
Sashimi platter $178
Uni nori $200
Geoduck clam salad $110
Napa cabbage salad $80
Smoked silverfish tempura $90
Tokyo turnips with chorizo $90
Yellow snapper karaage $90
Fried quail $150
Leather jacketfish tempura $120
Kagoshima beef $380
Total (for two) $1,208
8 On Wo Ln, Sheung Wan, 2547 5263; roninhk.com. Mon-Sat 6pm-midnight. Closed Sun.
8 On Wo Ln, Sheung Wan