July 26, 2013

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Canadian-born Matt Abergel has had Hong Kong’s foodies in a frenzy since launching Yardbird two years ago. They found success and critical acclaim with brilliantly simple chicken-only yakitori with a twist, in their stark, loud, sceney, Brooklyn-esque venue on Bridges street, which instantly became the hottest table in town.

Now Matt has turned his hand from perfect poultry to flippin’ fresh fish with the opening of RONIN this past March. By contrast to the in-your-face style and conspicuous location of Yardbird, RONIN is tucked away on On Wo Lane, a slate-grey doorframe belying the culinary wizardry that lies within. The beautifully presented cuisine leans towards Nippon seafood with a twist, paired with an impressive assortment of premium whiskeys and sakes.


On a recent trip back to my old hometown, a good friend treated me to dinner at RONIN, and without resorting to too many superlatives, it was simply phenomenal – as I knew it would be, having been a committed Yardbirdite.


Yardbird is buzzy and edges towards a party vibe, while RONIN is hushed and serene. Where Yardbird’s dishes are brash, bold and opinionated, RONIN’s are delicate and understated. Yardbird’s interior is stark and the window seats afford both diners and pedestrians a voyeuristic experience, whereas RONIN is hidden, private and very intimate. I feel like I’m on a Tokyo backstreet as I glide through a heavy grey door into this sleek, sultry 14 seater temple of Nippon zen.


I was curious to hear how the concept of RONIN was conceived. It came about not through a grand vision or concept that had been months in the making. Rather, Matt stumbled upon the space first, after which the ideas came together. His background has been mostly in Japanese cuisine, having cut his teeth at an izakaya in Canada before moving to New York stalwart Masa, after which he made the move to Asia to work at Zuma in Hong Kong.


So what is it about the Japanese cuisine and sensibility that is so appealing? Matt explains that whilst kitchens in general tend to be hierarchical beasts, he found the collaborative aspect of working with Japanese chefs very conducive to learning. There is also very little waste in the Japanese kitchen. “The cuisine is built around people respecting food and putting that first. You’re not throwing away ¾ of the day’s vegetables. Cutting techniques are much more practical and economical.”


I love the playful element of RONIN’s menu; it’s creative without being prone to excess the way many restaurants today are, with their multiple emulsions, veloutes and the like. The deconstructed/reconstructed fish is a brilliant example. Matt agrees, “I limit myself to the amount of ingredients I add to the dishes. It’s about restraint. A lot of the combinations are classical Japanese combinations that I have seen or learned in the past and tweaked here and there. The main goal is to highlight the singular ingredient.”


The uni comes with fresh nori and aonori panko bread crumbs, lending an unexpected textural twist to the dish without stealing the limelight from the briny silkiness of the sea urchin. The perfectly balanced shigoku oysters with red shiso vinegar and sudachi are also as pleasing to the eye as they are to the palate.


The menu generally stays the same, allowing for subtle changes and substitutions depending on market availability. Speaking of which, Matt and his team of four Cantonese chefs are committed to working with locally sourced ingredients from the region as well as Japan. Visiting Kennedy Town’s wet market daily, he has forged relationships with his favourite vendors. He prefers to focus on smaller fish – no tuna or salmon. No farmed fish. Championing under utilized fish like mackerel and sardines is Matt’s way of educating diners on the virtue that bigger isn’t always better.


Speaking of his love for Hong Kong food culture, Matt says the freshness of his ingredients is of tantamount importance. It’s one of the defining aspects of Cantonese cuisine. It’s always about the raw materials. Linking this to the underlying essence of RONIN, Matt is adamant that the city plays an important role in the identity of the bar and restaurant. “RONIN was born in Hong Kong and I see it as being part of the local food scene. It’s a representation of what I see as the best way to cook. It wouldn’t be the same if it was in Canada.”


So what to choose from the menu? Go large and opt for the omakase. Put yourself in the chef’s capable hands, sampling as much as possible. While RONIN has a deep focus on aquatic edibles, carnivores are also catered to with Kagoshima Beef, Maitake, and egg yolk – a heavenly concoction that’s pure melt-in-your-mouth beef and runny egg, offset by crunchy garlic and mushrooms. Are you drooling yet?


here is a stellar range of Japanese whiskeys here as well, with over 50 varieties from more than 10 distilleries. Plus, of course, cocktails, umeshu, shochu, sake and beer. Matt’s a whiskey man, and asserts that there are in fact many delicate whiskeys that pair surprisingly well with food. He recommends giving yourself up to the capable mixing hands of head sommelier Eliot. RONIN is also great for those seeking a pre or post prandial drink – the ambience is perfect for a tête-à-tête.

Speaking of ambience, Matt has a huge interest in design, “If I wasn’t going to be a chef, I would have gone to industrial design school. My father is a carpenter, grandpa a furniture maker, and it’s something I grew up around. I love using wood and natural materials. The idea of seeing something through from conception to the end product, is like being a chef!”


Speaking of ambience, Matt has a huge interest in design, “If I wasn’t going to be a chef, I would have gone to industrial design school. My father is a carpenter, grandpa a furniture maker, and it’s something I grew up around. I love using wood and natural materials. The idea of seeing something through from conception to the end product, is like being a chef!”

His mentor from Masa took him to Ishikawa, north of Tokyo to look at purchasing a keyaki tree for the bar and flooring. The idea was to have simple and subdued interiors; almost like camouflage, to set the stage for the food and drink. He also used canvas on the ceiling and walls to optimize acoustic levels. With RONIN he had the luxury of hindsight, experience and a flexible deadline: “I have a great landlord and understanding investors. I wanted to take my time and make it perfect – no interest in just flinging the doors open. It’s always nerve wracking to open a second restaurant.”

So… what about a third? “There are always new ideas that are popping up into my head. I definitely would like to focus more on casual food, as I want to serve more people and it not be prohibitively expensive so that I can grow my relationship with the city.” My suggestion was that he immediately decamp to Singapore to set up Yardbird and RONIN here. Or become The HUNT Guides’ private chef. Fingers crossed.

8 On Wo Lane
Hong Kong

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