TALK ABOUT PRESSURE. The new hipster izakaya Ronin is the brainchild of the team behind Yardbird, and there cannot be an opening more anticipated.
“It's an evolution of things,” says Matt Abergel, the chef-owner whose chicken brings the culinary cognoscenti running. “Yardbird is a place where we can have fun, but this is going to be a little more relaxed.”
What he and partner Lindsay Jang wanted to do was something quieter, more sophisticated and focused – a task easier said than done amid the cacophony that surrounds Yardbird on a daily basis, whether it's at the restaurant home base or at one of the side gigs they've executed as brand-party caterers or with pop-up concepts.
“Of course it's flattering [that] people we've grown up idolising in the food world have now come and eaten [at Yardbird],” says Jang. “People we look up to in other industries have been our customers now. There are definitely moments when we're like, ‘Holy shit!' ”
“It's human nature that people want you to fail. If you can do something well once, you want to prove people wrong and show them that you can do something just as good a second time around, and completely different.”
After the location was found, a nondescript little space at the end of Kau U Fong on On Wo Lane, time was needed to conceptualise and then fine-tune.
If Ronin isn't exactly the antithesis of the brash and buzzy Yardbird, it's certainly the sleeker, more cultured older sister. The focus is on drinks more than food, and the interiors reflect that – two long bars flank the sides of the restaurant, and while place settings for 14 or so are neatly set up, the number of bottles in fridges and up on shelves outnumbers the seats many, many times over.
“We definitely have the biggest selection of Japanese whisky in Hong Kong,” says Abergel, who leaves the curation of alcohol to teammates Elliot Faber and Raphael Holzer. “Elliot is definitely a wine nerd; Raph is not, he's like a connoisseur; he loves it and he's very knowledgeable.”
The whisky collection was meant to house 50 Japanese varieties, and increased to more than 70 even before Ronin officially opened for business, running the gamut from a five-year-aged single sherry-cask bottling from White Oak Distillery in Hyogo (bottle 88 of 102) acquired “in a private deal on a cold night in Tokyo while sharing a dram at Zoetrope, the most famous Japanese whisky bar in the world”, according to Faber, to a Yamazaki No Age Statement bottle not available locally that defies the stereotype that equates age with merit.
“A lot of these are like the last bottle, and the distillery doesn't even exist anymore. Elliot will be like, ‘Try not to sell this bottle.' And I tell him that's not the point,” says Jang, laughing.
The bar is the only venue in Hong Kong to offer Hitachino beer on draft, a distinction of which Abergel and Jang had wished to boast with the opening of Yardbird, but couldn't because the folks at Hitachino didn't believe the demand existed. They do now. And Ronin offers full lists of sake, shochu and umeshu, as well as a cocktail selection that is growing by the day.
But you won't find Martinis on the list – “We don't even have Martini glasses,” says Jang. Instead, there are “uplifting” brews tried and tested by Holzer, who, according to Abergel, is the only person he knows “that has been around alcohol since such a young age. There's a beer tap in his house. His grandfather is a distiller; his father blends rum and he grew up with a thousand litres of Jamaican rum in his backyard in a big tub. He grew up in Austria; they put rum in your breakfast cereal.”
“His mother came to visit and she could drink everyone under the table,” says Jang, which is useful as Holzer (and Faber) are often found being plied with drinks by patrons while on the clock at Yardbird. Holzer “has a lot of interest in alcohol being a tonic; he doesn't want it to make you slow, he wants it to be an upper.”
The food philosophy is simpler, with a one-sheet menu that encompasses 10 hot and 10 cold dishes. The cuisine represents a culmination of Abergel's four years in Hong Kong, coming to terms with local sourcing and understanding the needs of the target clientele: “It's a chance for me to show people that there's actually a lot of amazing seafood in Hong Kong, and with just a little more effort you can really celebrate that.
“This is a place for focus, a place where we can incubate ideas; we want it to be where I can cook and actually be able to breathe. The menu has changed every day since we've opened, for three days so far. But they're small changes, just a tweak or refinement. Everything here is going to be a lot more subtle than at Yardbird.”
The ocean-centric selection will offer four or five types of sashimi daily, mostly sourced from Japan, dusted with modern accompaniments much in the way that Nobu embellishes its “new style” sashimi. Today, there's saba mackerel with pickled persimmon, shima aji with fresh wasabi and soy (the single more “traditional” option), wild sea bass with konbu and soy, and locally sourced squid sashimi with sudachi, nori and cucumber. Always, the additions elevate the product without masking the taste, even when it comes to such aggressive flavouring as pickled persimmon.
Oysters, too, will be a perennial presence, with either one or two types offered daily. Shigoku oysters with cucumber water and yuzu kosho (fermented chilli peppers, yuzu peel and salt) visually imply a tart and tangy taste, but in actuality are more dominated by the cool refreshment of cucumber. It's perhaps more interesting and bold rather than genuinely a great choice of preparation, but acts as a more urbane counterpoint to the fried food that typifies Yardbird.
There's still fried food at Ronin, but not like Yardbird's sauced-up and spicy Korean fried cauliflower or fritter-ific corn tempura balls. Red snapper is served up, carcass in tow, with fluffy pillows of fish nestled along the belly bones. Lightly battered and perfectly cooked, it's a gentler take on comfort food.
Sardines, however, could easily appear on the menu at either restaurant. The gimmickry – it's served in a label-less sardine can that customers open themselves – rings more of the original venture, but the more lightly nuanced flavours spell Ronin. The chirashi is a heftier dish, with unagi and pickled cucumber on sushi rice that's flavoured by a special vinegar that's a gift from the team at Sushi Yoshitake (“Those guys spend a lot of time at Yardbird, and we became friends, so they made me a special batch of sushi vinegar,” says Abergel).
But as any fan of Yardbird will tell you (or really, anyone who eats at restaurants), the experience is about more than just the eats. The establishment rose to fame more for being a hip hangout with knowledgeable, friendly staff and an easygoing attitude, a concept that has been ripped off with varying levels of success across town – though it can't really be replicated, unless you can duplicate a team that's so tight they spend not only all their working hours and but most of their waking hours together, harmoniously and by choice. Abergel and Jang met at 18 working together in a skate shop (homage is duly paid to this experience in the series of black-andwhite Mike O'Mealy photographs of skate culture) and share two children – one of whom Ronin is named for – though they've very much expanded that nuclear family through their business.
“I don't know if it sounds cliché, but we've really grown up together since we were teenagers, and we've always sort of done what we wanted to, with full commitment. And so I think when Yardbird became successful and people really enjoyed being there, it's just like a party at your house, and I think our customers feel that, and there's passion in the food, there's passion in the people serving the food, and you always feel welcome,” muses Jang.
But while this may be a faultless formula from a business perspective, it's got to take its toll – it's great to be the life of the party, but maybe not when the party is six days a week, every week.
“It's time for us to decompress from Yardbird. It's time for us to relax a little bit and slow down, where there's not going to be 100 people inside the place,” says Abergel. And though arguably, adding another venture might not be the best strategy for giving yourself some peace and quiet, it's the best Abergel can hope for right now. “I want to take it easy and cook. Lindsay wants to take over the world.”