An unassuming passerby would have no idea what happening behind this low-key, non-descriptive facade off On Wo Lane in central Hong Kong. No one would ever guess that the matte anthracite steel sliding door with a wooden handle hides one of the city’s most respected, and tiniest, restaurants.
With its exquisite market tasting menu and supper bar-meets-speakeasy feel, it is no wonder that RŌNIN’s jewel box of modern Japanese seafood restaurant is well booked.
RŌNIN is an izakaya-style dining bar, with a focus on fish, seafood, and Japanese spirits. Captivating the imagination and the palate, RŌNIN offers a Market Tasting menu and an À La Carte menu.
Split into three sections – Raw, Smaller and Bigger – it is recommended that one starts with the Raw, then progress to the Smaller nibbles and triumphantly finish the meal with a Bigger dish.
Both menus are created by Chef Matt Abergel, who has worked at high-end Japanese restaurants including Masa in New York and Zuma in Hong Kong. He opened his own yakitori restaurant Yardbird in 2011 to critical acclaim, before launching Ronin in 2013.
Chef Abergel is noted for his command of fine Japanese cooking techniques and exquisite sensibility of his artistically plated, delicious creations, using only the best seafood that is locally, regionally and internationally sourced.
Chef Abergel experiments with a plethora of fresh fish. So instead of the usual tuna or salmon, the menu might include sardines with pickled tomato; geoduck clams with shichimi vinaigrette; cuttlefish with red shiso and ume sauce; or sayori with kimchi vinegar. There is also plenty for non-fish eaters, including all kinds of seafood along with quail, udon and Kagoshima beef.
The food is always beautifully presented but the artistry of the compositions in no way detracts from the taste. Styling never takes precedence over substance. The flavours may range from innovative to comforting to revelatory but are they always well balanced, well defined and the passion for quality ingredients is evident.
The menu changes constantly dictated by season, freshness and quality, although of course, there are regular fixtures. Some of the must-order signature dishes include Flower crab, hokkaido uni, mitsuba: flower crab shell piled high with crabmeat, mitsuba, and fresh uni; Kagoshima beef, maitake, egg yolk: thinly-sliced beef topped with fried garlic chips, maitake mushrooms, finely shredded Japanese leeks, and an egg yolk; and Unagi, kinome, chirashi, rice: sushi rice blended with kinome, sanshō, and pickled cucumber slices, and topped with lightly-seared fillets of eel.
Instead of traditional desserts, the restaurant offers unique dessert drinks with coffee or coconut chocolate flavours. Diners are encouraged to bring their own dessert if they would like something more substantial.
It boasts an impressive whisky collection that features over 125 varieties, many are exclusively available at RŌNIN. The collection ranges from Japan’s first malt whisky distillery Yamazaki to the rare Karuizawa.
There is also a curated selection of sakes, shochus, umeshus, Japanese microbrews, wine and cocktails. Each beverage is stylistically unique from one another and serves a specific purpose – to complement the food and to provide an exciting experience for diners.
Discreet, small and minimal, the space is long and narrow. It was originally meant to be a standing-only bar but later became a 14-seat bar on one side of the restaurant with standing space on the other. RŌNIN has 24 seats total, with 14 seats exclusive to reservations and 10 bar stools for walk-in guests.
Designed by Sean Dix, the stylish interiors of RŌNIN are reminiscent of traditional Japanese bars.
They travelled to Japan to source many of the elements, spending days in a little village to choose the perfect 150-year old log to cut into slabs for the thick counters and travertine flooring.
Sean Dix created custom, leather-lined bar seats to fill the restaurant. The long bar is crafted from centuries old kiln-dried Japanese timber. The illuminated shelves feature the rare Japanese whiskies and artisanal spirits, whilst the internally lit display fridge was custom-made to fit under an existing staircase.
The lighting throughout the restaurant is pleasantly dim and unassuming, which creates a special atmosphere reminiscent of a speakeasy. The slate-grey walls are lined with black-and-white street photography, taken by skateboard photographer Mike O’Meally.
Each of the knowledgeable staff members knows the ever-changing menu enough to be able to tell diners how it was prepared, whether or not an ingredient is local or flown in from Japan, or if there is a particularly intriguing sake you should be pairing with your appetiser.
Regulars and well-informed foodies come to RŌNIN for the incredible cooking and stay for the good vibes.