Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Another Monday Night - Ronin

I heard mixed comments regarding Ronin - some swore it's the best izakaya in town, some gave me the "meh" look when I mentioned we were going to try the restaurant, thinking it's overrated. Given that I actually waited long enough so I got a good share of comments before setting my foot into this place - I don't wanna waste my money (and time) on a lousy meal. Oh well, we finally went this past Monday, here's my verdict.

We went on a Monday evening, thinking it's probably the quietest night and easiest to get a reservation. They had a rather strict reservation policy but it's by and large fair, given they only got a handful of seats available on any given night - it's by email only and they only take reservation 7 days in advance with 2 fixed seatings. At least they allow reservations, unlike Yardbird by the same owner. Well, at the end we did get our spots at the time we preferred (the second seating - which starts at 8:45pm), but the place was full when we arrived and actually had to turn a couple walk-in customers away.

The space was quite tight once you walked through the door hidden in the dark facade of a non-descript building on a deadend street - one side was the bar-style seating with 10+ seats (and over half of them facing a wall), then the other side was the standing room. The raw food section cum bar was on one end with the hot kitchen hidden at the back. But I guess with the clever use of decor and lighting, the place didn't feel as cramped as it was, and actually the seats were quite comfortable.

The daily changing menu came with three sections - Raw, Smaller and Bigger. There's also the option of omakase menu. We opted to do a la carte and ordered a few from each section to share. We started off with an amuse bouche of marinated lotus root wrapped okra, and then the Market Chips - thinly sliced deep-fried vegetable crisps completed with drizzles of black sugar syrup. It's surprisingly good and felt like the bowl was bottomless as we kept reaching in while waiting for the rest of our order.

The first appetizer dish of Shigoku oyster came in good size, and served with red shiso vinegar and a light squeeze of sudachi with its zest. The oyster has a mild taste, and I could taste plenty of shiso vinegar but little sudachi (similar to lime) - it's not bad but nothing to write home about.

From the Raw section, we ordered 2 more sashimi dishes - Saba (Mackeral) was lightly seasoned with salt with slices of smoked dried persimmon, then tai (sea bream) with grated karasumi and yuzu. Saba is a tricky piece of fish as it will turn mushy and fishy easily, but this is probably a better version I had in Hong Kong. I understand the idea of contrasting the mild tai fish with strong karasumi, but didn't quite appreciate it as the fish flavor was totally buried with the distinct karasumi taste. Nonetheless, both sashimi pieces were fresh and had firm texture, and each serving came with a few pieces good enough to share among us two.

The cold appetizer of flower crab, mitsuba and uni was freshly made and sumptuous, beautifully presented in a crab shell but with not enough flavors. On the other hand, I love the clams sauteed and served with flavorful kimchi dashi broth and finely chopped mitsuba (Japanese parsley) on top. It's aromatic and brought out the best of clams. I absolutely loved the combination of the clear dashi, slightly tangy kimchi and clam juice - I ended up spooning all the broth and finished it on its own.

We also had the smoked silver beltfish tempura with black sugar kewpie. Well it didn't have the right fluffy, delicate batter like a good tempura, but on its own it's actually quite good - worked best with my beer. Not enough smokey flavor though. 

I like both of the main dishes in the "Bigger" section of the menu. The quail was de-boned, deep-fried junk-food style, with hints of sansho spices and orange peels (think of it as a more flavorful and juicy KFC chicken). Love the enticing aroma from that of the orange zest, and tingling sensation on the tongue from the sansho combined with the intensely oily but tender quail. Came with good portion too - the plate is more than enough for share by 2 or 4 as nibbles. This is finger licking good.

The Kagoshima Beef was my favorite of the evening - cooked sukiyaki style with thin slices of barely-cooked beef, simmered in the well-seasoned sauce with just the right sweetness. The condiments were simplistic - shredded and chopped negi (leeks), deep-fried garlic, sauteed maitake mushroom and an egg yolk - but divine. I feel hungry just by looking at the picture.

Originally I was worried that we didn't order enough, but at the end we were so full after finishing the last bit of the beef. I struggled hard to resist ordering the unagi-don at the end of our meal, but finally figured it's best to leave it til next time. They had a good selection of Japanese whisky - some usual ones but some hard to find selections showcasing at the bar, but given this being a weeknight, we settled with beer and umeshu. I started off with the Hitachino Nest white ale on draft from a boutique Kiuchi Brewery just north of Tokyo, then followed by the amber ale from the same brewery in a bottle. With the food, I definitely preferred the white ale with its refreshing aroma and mild taste. They also had a comprehensive cocktail menu with some unusual choices too.

Service was actually better than I would have expected (given this is more like a gastropub then a proper restaurant) - friendly and knowledgeable staff, and food was served at the right pace and right order.

So my verdict? It's decent but pricey - which I think was somewhat justified given the location, decor, crowd and stuff. I wouldn't necessarily come back for a complete meal per se or make a big detour for this, but will definitely return for drinks and a few nibbles if I happen to be in the hood at the right time.

When? July 22 2013
Where? Ronin, 8 On Wo Lane, Central, Hong Kong
Menu Highlights? Kagoshima Beef, Maitake, Egg Yolk

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