Friday, October 18, 2013

Ronin, Hong Kong, and the search for Wow

I love eating out (duh), and just like anything you choose to immerse yourself in, you quickly find yourself in search of "wow" moments. To me, achieving a state of "wow" on the palate is seriously not dissimilar to an orgasm, however cliched that sounds (ok, very). It makes you ecstatic. You come out of the meal fists pumping and gasping for breath because it was, quite literally, taken away.

Anyway, it's a big deal when I am wowed. Lately, I've been very lucky - just in the past month, I've scored 3 wows - big personal record.

One of these was at Ronin. I've been here three times now, but only two for a proper meal. If you don't know that it's the new sister restaurant of Yardbird, you've probably been living under a rock, but it's okay, there's nothing wrong with rocks, especially with whisky.

Saba, sea bream topped with grated karasumi
This post includes a collection of photos taken from the two separate meals, and they're not the whole meals either, just some of the dishes that really stood out to me.

If you're there to eat, there are 2 options - a la carte, or tasting menu. A la carte is split into snacks, smaller and bigger. Smaller and bigger denote not only size, but intensity of flavour.

Coffee-infused shochu with brown sugar
You can also go there to just drink. Ronin is as much a bar as it is an eatery, but I like to call it a drinker's restaurant. The collection of beverages is astounding, especially whisky (Japanese in particular) and sake. There's also Hitachino Nest's White Ale on tap (YES!). I know it's not a new idea in the US or other trendsetting regions, but the idea that in one restaurant, you can pair food with more than just 1 type of beverage is a concept that isn't as popular as it should be in HK.

Uni with seaweed and panko
Bottarga, or salted cured fish roe, is probably my new favourite ingredient. Bottarga is, of course, the Italian version, and probably the most well-known version in the West, but recently I've discovered Asian equivalents - Taiwanese wuyuzi, local fishermans' yuzi from yellow croakers, and the Japanese karasumi. It has the same appeal as salted egg yolks and salted fish - you need to like rich, fishy, salty flavours that have a sweet finish. Grating it is a clever way of keeping it light and airy, because as you can imagine, the intensity of salted fish roe can be a bit much. On a light fish like sea bream, the respective sweetnesses (is that even a word?) of fresh and dry resonated well with each other.

Pickled sardines
By now, it's pretty obvious that Ronin's focus is on seafood, although don't go thinking it's a sashimi place - it isn't. I suppose it's a modern izakaya with a seafood focus. The uni with seaweed and panko is a perfect example of the kind of innovation that goes on at Ronin. All the ingredients are arguably Japanese, but the end result is the kind of thing that benefits from a bit of distance from the source. To eat the dish, you need to mash the uni up - that's hardly ever done in Japanese cuisine. Uni is so precious, you almost don't even want to scratch the surface as you're picking them up with your chopsticks. Even I was a little hesitant at first to "use" uni like a cream to hold everything together, but boy is it delicious when you do.

Smoked skate
The thing about these dishes (and the drinks) is that they're not afraid of bold flavours. Usually in Japanese food, flavours are super clean, super refined, super delicate, which is great, but there is a time and place for big flavours - as long as they're built up carefully, there's no reason why they should be omitted from anyone's menu. Smoked and deep-fried? Sure, why not: the fish was firm, and yes, smoky and salty, but the deep-frying was in a delicate, tempura style that didn't feel bad or greasy at all.

Kagoshima beef, maitake, egg yolk
The only non-seafood dish I'll be mentioning here (although not the only non-seafood dish on the menu, of course) is the sliced Kagoshima beef. It's kind of like a tartare, tataki or yukhoe, which is already pretty fail-safe if you use good beef, but the addition of mushrooms adds an extra dimension of umami, as well as texture. It's so indulgent yet incredibly moreish, and it makes you want to mop up every last drop, lick the dish and pucker your lips to really savour every molecule.

There are no desserts per se, hence the coffee infused shochu (sometimes there's also chocolate), and if your dinner takes a while, you may be asked to finish off your meal while at the standing bar. There are two seatings, but at least you can book, which is already much easier, psychologically, than Yardbird (I love YB, but get too stressed out about waiting, and it's hard with groups or overseas visitors). That said, it's definitely not the same as Yardbird - this is definitely more refined and ambitious, menu-wise, but the service and style/vibe still has that winning Yardbird DNA that combines ease with professionalism, something that HK certainly needs more of.

8 On Wo Lane (off Gough Street and Kau U Fong, right near The Chairman)
Hong Kong
Mon-Sat 6pm-midnight
Reserve up to 7 days in advance

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