Saturday, 20 June 2015

Ronin - a 'speak easy' of a restaurant

I'm sure you know what a speak easy is, right?  It's a secret location that came into prominence in the 1920's in the United States as a consequence of the prohibition on alcohol.  Almost exclusively, the speak easy is a bar, hard to find and normally a heap of fun.  

We'd heard some great things about a little Japanese restaurant called Ronin, which is the sister restaurant of Yardbird (see post here) and Sunday's Grocery (see post here).  Of course, after having an amazing experience at the aforementioned dining spots, we were pretty excited about checking out the latest restaurant.  Located in On Wo Lane in Central Hong Kong, Ronin has a reputation as a spot that's pretty hard to find, and as it turned out, we couldn't even find the entrance while we were standing right out the front.

Which brings me back to the concept of a speak easy.  It turned out that the door to Ronin was a little grey/black number that was almost impossible to see in the dark, but once we found the sliding door, we were transported to a super sleek and sexy set up bar.  We were shown to our seat, which was right in the middle of the bar and gave us an amazing view of countless bottles of Japanese whisky.  We were given a set of menus, that once we flipped through a few times, realised were whisky and drinks menu.  I leaned across to SC and whispered in her ear 'are you sure they serve food here?'

A quick question to our waitress and a couple of menus magically appeared, showcasing a list of food that was clearly Japanese based and, even more evidently, heavily biased towards fish.  The menu, put together by head chef Matt Abergel, covered a wide range of great looking food described as 'raw', 'smaller' and 'big'.  As we looked over the menu, our very discreet waitress whispered into our ears that  the menu featured food sourced from local markets and changed daily.  She also whispered that we had the bar table until 8:30pm, at which time we'd need to be relocated to a stand up bench, just behind where we were sitting.  

It was at this point we decided that it would be a great idea to forgo individually choosing our dinner and would let Matt and his kitchen staff pick our meal, so went for the Market Tasting Menu.  We wanted to be surprised, and there is no better way than running with a tasting menu!

Our first little taster of the evening was a very simple plate of bamboo shoot with night flower, presented in a brown earthenware plate, that would feature prominently throughout the night.  I'm not really sure how I felt about the dish, which was very neutral in taste and had a little bit of a strange texture.  It didn't really excite my palate the way an amuse bouche should and I was just a little bit worried that the rest of the tasting menu was going to fall flat.

My initial reservations quickly fell away with the next course, two oysters presented simply on a bed of ice in one of those cool earthenware plates.  The oysters were Shigokus, a relatively new breed of oyster that can only be described as light and clean, with a flavour that was brought to life with the addition of a cucumber and pear broth.  Shigoku means 'ultimate' in Japanese and we found that the oysters provided full and complete flavour, aligning with their meaning. 

What visit to a Japanese restaurant would be complete without a plate of sashimi?  It was with open arms that we welcomed the next earthenware plate, topped with ice and four delicious and delicate looking samples from the sashimi menu.  The plate comprised Saba Mackerel with persimmon and a lovely smokey flavour; Shima Aji (Striped Jack) with fresh wasabi (which I steered clear of); Tai (Sea Bream) with karasumi and kobosu and finally Aka Isaki (Red Grunt) with spring onion and ginger.  Each was quite lovely, with each of the fish pieces being incredibly fresh but my favourite was the simple texture and taste of the Shima Aji.

Our next plate was stunning to look at and even better to devour.  The flower crab with uni, mitsuba and sea urchin was our third dish in a row to be presented on ice, and without doubt was the best to date.  Presented in a crab shell, there was a pile of delicate crab meat mixed in with the uni and mitsuba and topped with a generous helping of very salty sea urchin.  There was a lightness and sweetness from the crab flesh that was fully enhanced by the salty urchin.  Given the share nature of the tasting menu, we tried to share equally in the delicious crab, but as is often the case with our tasting menus, I fear that the girl snaffled up more than her fair share! (Might have been my imagination though!)

I'm not normally a fan of salads, but Ronin surprised us with a completely delicious Agami salad, with large chunks of Spanish Mackerel sashimi and marinated mushroom.  I'm not 100% sure what Ronin put on the salad, but there was this red/brown coating on top of the salad that was simply scrumptious.  The Mackerel was of course fresh and lovely, but wherever that red/brown powder was sprinkled was the bomb!  

Realising that time was getting away and that we'd need to move at 8:30, the team at Ronin picked up the pace and no sooner was our salad was cleared than our next course of chawanmushi with blue crab and corn was delivered.  A variation on the earthenware plates, the dish was presented in a cup with instructions to mash the concoction around to mix up the flavours.  Chawanmushi is a very traditional Japanese dish that is an egg custard delivered a tea cup.  The Ronin version used pureed sweet corn instead, which added a really sweet flavour, that worked well with the blue crab, the two sweet flavours contrasting well.

Next was a dish that very much reminded of our visit to Yardbird, a yakitori restaurant that specialised in chicken skewers cooked on a charcoal grill.  We were given a couple of pieces of striped jack that had been skewered and cooked on a grill, then finished off with some cod roe. The incredibly flavoured fish pieces were wonderfully full flavoured as a result of the salty-crispy skin and the roe.  The delicate fish almost fell off the skewers and were devoured quickly, leaving a sense that another round would be much appreciated!

I think my favourite dish of the night had to be the kisu (Japanese whiting), lightly cooked in a shiso tempura and then served with a dish of mandarin salt.  The kisu was rolled with some seaweed before being cooked and then sliced for presentation on the plate.  The mandarin salt was essential for the dish, providing not only the prefect amount of salt, but a little bit of the acidity that helps bring fish to life.  I really felt like we could have just dined out on a big pile of the kisu and died a happy and sated foodie!

We'd lost count of our courses to date, but luckily I'd been taking photos, so I was able to do a quick count...  Eight dishes down and no real idea of how many to go, the girl was starting to feel a little full and we were both left wondering if we'd be able to finish the rest of the menu.  Our next dish was the very unusual, and quite poisonous stonefish deep-fried and dusted with some mystery spices, that were quite lip numbing.  The stonefish was a surprisingly robust and strong flavoured fish.  We were given a fillet and fin to eat, with the fillet being quite tasty and good value, but the fin being a mystery with practically no flesh and just a lot of spindly bones.  I loved the fillet, even though it left my lips numb for quite a while, but was definitely mystified with the extra boney piece of fish.

You normally associate sardines with tiny little fish that spring out of a can with a heap of oil, but not all sardines are equal.  Ronin had produced an extremely large fillet of grilled sardine covered in fruit tomato and an umi dashi.  The acidity of the tomato was the perfect match for the usually oily sardine, which was actually more sweet than oily.  It kind of looked a little boring on the plate, but was extremely tasty, which just goes to show that you can't judge a dish on its looks.

By this time, the clock was getting scarily close to 8:30 and we still had no idea about when our meal would finish, and we were pretty much stuffed by that stage.  As our next pate was presented, our waitress, who'd been pretty great to date gave us a whispered warning that there was only two dishes to go, including the quail with orange and sansho that she'd just given us. We silently gave a huge sigh of relief, even as we wondered how we would get through the quite large looking quail (quail normally doesn't look big, right?).  By this time, SC was more than happy for me to take most of the quail, which was expertly cooked and quite succulent.  The quail breast was best, especially with the golden crusty coating.  It was like incredibly refined KFC but with an orange undertone instead of the secret '7 herbs and spices'.

We'd had enough by the time the last dish of eel and rice was handed over.  We made a half hearted attempt to eat the grilled eel, which was quite nice, but there was just no way we could have eaten any more.  We were done!  We did feel a little bad about leaving most of the last dish, but did have to assure the team at Ronin that there had just been too much food.

There was one last surprise though, our waitress who'd been so good during the night had wanted to share a small glass of sake with us.  As a non drinker, I declined, but SC was only to happy to finish off the meal with a shot.  I watched on with a wry grin as SC gulped down the shot, thinking that I'd be sick if I'd tried...

One thing you can say about Ronin is that the staff are incredibly friendly.  Now, a cynical person might look a the Ronin policy of not charging a service fee, leaving it up to the diner to validate the service on the night with a large tip.  Either way, we were happy with the service and left an appropriately sized gratuity.

Ronin had been completely empty when we'd first arrived, as is usually the case, but we'd watched on as the small dining area that accommodated about fourteen diners filled up.  As we got closer to the changeover time of 8:30pm, the restaurant really came alive, with essentially double the number of diners in a state of finishing meals (us) and finishing drinks (the next set of diners).  Helping the vibe along was a really cool sound track that reminded that we were not just in a restaurant, but a funky little bar too.

Our only issue with the night was the sticker shock of the bill, which was quite a bit higher than we'd expected to spend.  I guess that's the risk you take when taking on a tasting menu and to this day, I'm still not convinced the value was there.  However, there is no doubt that the funky little speak easy of a restaurant produces some top quality nosh!

Of course, in a whisky bar, you need a whisky!  SC went with the Yamasaki highball
The flower crab had the feeling of a signature dish
The grilled fish was something special
The quail was superbly cooked and full flavoured
It was empty when we arrived, but the space quickly turned into a thumping bar 
Can you see the door to Ronin?  Neither could we, until we got closer!

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