An Umami Disposition, (RŌNIN, Hong Kong)

A visit to RŌNIN is one where both the journey and the destination are almost equally weighted. We were on our way there, yet ended up bidding farewell to our taxi driver somewhere in the middle of Sheung Wan. It was like dropping a pin on a large corner of a map, a very rough estimation of where the restaurant would be. This was done at our insistence. Night had fallen and the dizzying lights, cobbled mazes and surrealist street art of Sheung Wan were begging to be investigated. If we were in a Japanese RPG, he led the way, I was the sandwich filling and she held the flank. At every curiosity, whether it be an antique store or an eggette dessert bar, we were constantly hitting the ‘X’ button to [Examine].

As protagonists, we had free reign to meander, so long as we still completed our mission at the end. And just like a 1990-something JRPG belonging to the original Playstation, the nooks and crannies were tricky to navigate. Sheung Wan was not made for the combination of high-heeled boots and a childish disposition, a lesson I learnt that night, specifically to pass on to you, my Player 2. As it turned out, we had walked back and forth, past the elusive Ronin, missing it each and every time. We eventually walked up to the lady like a dandy, a non-playable character (NPC) outside a cherry poppin’ bar and hit ‘X’ again. She riddled us, laughed, and steered us to the blank door of a blank wall before she returned to her post.

I’ve been a patron of hidden bars and understated restaurants before. But Ronin’s exterior which literally resembles a black box is humorous bordering on arrogance, they’re that good. Like The Room of Requirement, you would only find it if you knew exactly what you were looking for. If you know, then you know I guess. As you enter, you’ll find that the insides are best described as modest, stylish and above all, minimal. There are only 14 places at the bar which are for bookings. Walk-ins are accepted for the 12 spaces along the wall counters, away from the prime spots that allow for a bit of bar-watching.

Now that we’re in the restaurant, our party has changed roles and I’ve been appointed the role of the main protagonist. On the menus tonight is food on a single sheet of A4 and drinks in the form of a booklet. I count seven varieties of whiskey per page, and there are well over 12 pages to their alcohol menu. Bringing someone like me to a restaurant whose offense is so ostensibly ‘alcohol’ is like bringing your Black Mage to the fore, only for her to be Silenced for the duration of the battle. It’s all I can do to take a photo of the impressive display in front of me and shoot it off to those who I know will appreciate it, before honing in on the food.

The menu changes daily, which encourages revisits, ensures regulars never get bored and allows chefs to play with ingredients based on freshness. It’s no easy feat to be doing this but rest assured the rewards are reaped by the diners. It’s worth mentioning that RŌNIN is very accommodating to parties of all sizes. As we place our order, the waitstaff understands the exact amounts we need to ensure everyone gets a decent mouthful, offering to increase a particular dish by one portion if it’s meant for two, or to divvy up a large-ish size dish three ways.

Botan ebi (Spot Prawn), Sudachi, Salt HKD120

The first up to bat is the botan ebi that comes in two forms. First in raw slices, seasoned with sudachi (Japanese/Peruvian citrus) and second with its head deep fried. The prawns are plump and sweet, as you’d expect, but the flavours are brought to harmony with the sour-saltiness from the seasoning. People who don’t eat prawn heads continue to mystify me as prawn heads are flavour bombs that form the backbone of a lot of amazing dishes like har mee and seafood bisque. A deep fried flavour bomb however, is a force that rocks your world.

Kajiki swordfish sashimi, Garlic shio konbu, Sesame HKD70

I almost never pass up the opportunity to order swordfish, a species that is fast becoming my favourite sea-dweller. I love the meatiness of its flesh and its inoffensive taste. There are times when you want an oily, smelly, briny mackerel and there are times when you want fish that doesn’t taste like fish. Having it raw means the bounciness and bite is retained without any chance of dryness. Its the perfect vessel to carry the garlic, salt and kombi trifecta as the flavours don’t compete.

Uni, fresh nori, aonori panko, yuzu HKD330

Our first uni dish is the food equivalent of a Benetton ad. There was so much diversity in the textures and the taste. You have uni which possesses the flavour profile of sea dredge (the highest compliment I’ve ever given to food), tartness from the yuzu, and aonori panko, the Japanese equivalent of savoury pop rocks. Throw in some fresh seaweed for good measure and the gang is all here. If there was ever an opportunity to kill steal, you’d want to be performing it on this dish.

Flower crab, Uni, Mitsuba, Sudachi HK490

We’re not quite out of the sea urchin woods yet (not that I would ever want to be) and this next dish proves even more powerful than the last. The flower crab flesh is sweet, almost cloyingly so, a testament to how fresh this catch is. Combined again with some salty urchin gonads and it’s no wonder than this remains a crowd favourite on the menu. It is at this point that I’m beginning to understand the simplicity to RŌNIN’s technique, a strong understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of every ingredient is what yields such perfectly balanced dishes.

Anago tempura, Tensu, Sansho salt HK170

I’m not usually partial to tempura but members of my party would treat tempura like the Curaga to their soul. I like that the batter is barely there and that anago is the less fatty of the eels we know, so the overall taste isn’t one that is too heavy. The sansho salt is left mostly untouched by us all as we aren’t partial to that numbing status effect, not unlike Szechuan pepper.

Grilled hata grouper, Tare, Kyoto Shichimi HK160

I’ve never had grouper in any other way other than steamed with soy sauce at a Cantonese restaurant. I also felt like bathing in tare. The grouper was cooked to perfection. The sancho element in shichimi isn’t normally that pronounced but it was tonight. This I think limited our overall enjoyment of our fish on a stick. This was our first ‘good enough’ order which paled in comparison to its predecessors of the night.

Oyster sando, Cabbage, Takana Tartar HK140

This oyster sando is what all of the sandwiches you’ve ever had in your entire life wanted to be, but can’t because they weren’t made in RŌNIN’s kitchen. The crumbed oyster was oh-so-meaty and had minimal seasoning, allowing the sweetness of its flesh to shine through. Cabbage added some crunch, bun was fluffy and the takana tartar needs to be sold in jars at the supermarket for easy slathering onto just about anything (bread, rice, toothbrush, take your pick).

Kagoshima beef, Negi, Maitake, Sukiyaki egg yolk HKD480

It’s interesting that the kagoshima beef is one of RŌNIN’s signatures, considering they are a restaurant that prides itself on its seafood. The first mouthful manages to explain it. Fatty folds of beef come together with juicy mushroom nubbins, a river of egg yolk and the sweetness of sukiyaki seasoning, making this dish richer than Hong Kong’s own Sir Li Ka-shing. Never will anything taste so wrong but also so right.

Unagi chirashi, kinome, pickled cucumber, sesame HKD270

If you’ve made it this far, you’d be coming face to face with the final boss battle. You’re near explodey point and you make the tactical decision to omit as much rice as possible and go just for the fatty melt-in-your-mouth pieces of unagi. This is where you’re wrong, because the rice somehow manages to be the hero of this dish, having absorbed so much flavour from the elements around it. As much as I hate cucumber, these pickles are a welcome relief to the tirade of indulgence I just put myself through. Life is hard.

Like finishing a video game you’ve spent the majority of your adolescence on, ending our meal at RŌNIN was a mixed bag of being so full you could almost throw up and fond bittersweetness. I was fortunate enough to have a number of incredible dining experiences during my short sojourn in Hong Kong but RŌNIN was by far the most enjoyable, simply because it was fun and didn’t take itself too seriously. I almost wish I could have forgotten it all at the end, just so I could have my first time with RŌNIN all over again.

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  1. Amazing review as always Sam. Ronin is at the top of my ever growing HK list for my next visit haha. Love it when waitstaff understand the amount of food needed to accomodate to the amount of people.

    1. I think you’d really love it. Delicious modern Japanese fare with high quality ingredients, plus the place just has a really cool and enjoyable vibe. I hope you make a trip to Hong Kong soon!

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