Restaurant review: Duddell's and Ronin
If you are looking for a Chinese restaurant with Western sensibilities, and if Lung King Heen is fully booked and you don’t have a membership at the China Club, then Duddell’s is your place. Opened in May, this high-end Cantonese kitchen atop the Shanghai Tang Mansion is a good place to entertain clients and overseas visitors. That is, if you don’t mind paying HK$1,000 a head for everyday food.
Duddell’s is the brainchild of local socialites Alan Lo, Paulo Pong and Yenn Wong. Lo is the founder of the Press Room, Pong runs a wine distributor, and Wong is responsible for 22 Ships and a pretentious Italian joint on Hollywood Road called 208. At the helm in the kitchen is chef Siu Hin-chi, whom the trio poached from the Michelin-starred T’ang Court.
Duddell’s offers traditional Cantonese fare: crispy chicken, barbecued pork, fried prawns and winter melon soup. The quality is no better than your regular hole-in-the-wall siu chao (stir fry) kitchen, but the prices are about five times as high. Dishes in small servings cost HK$250 to $300 a pop and the tasting menu will set you back HK$980 per guest. Then again, no one goes to Duddell’s for its food.
While the dishes are overpriced, the wine list is surprisingly accessible – thanks to Pong’s connections in the wine world. At Duddell’s, you can wash down roast duck and fried rice with a nice German Riesling for under HK$350 a bottle.
Designed by Ilse Crawford, the dining room cum art gallery is tasteful, homey but disappointingly windowless. The space doubles as a venue for art events during off hours and is the kind of see-and-be-seen place where mood lighting flatters and a uniformed staff works hard to please.
Although the food itself is nothing to write home about, the swanky bar and salon upstairs is a different story. After dropping a small fortune on dinner, walk your guests up a flight of stairs for a round of dry martini. The well-appointed bar, flanked by a small library and an outdoor terrace, provides plenty of space where you can hang out for the rest of the night to get your money’s worth.
Given Hong Kong’s competitive culinary scene, a place like Duddell’s normally wouldn’t last more than a few months. But if Shanghai Tang or its landlord is willing to indulge this art collectors’ hideout and subsidize its rent, then the restaurant might have more staying power than what the skeptics think.
Riding on the success of his first solo venture Yardbird, Canadian chef and entrepreneur Matt Abergel opened an izakayi this March that is as gimmicky and overpriced as his yakitori joint, but not nearly as cool or happening.
Behind a grey sliding door on On Wo Lane hides a narrow space that measures less than 100 square feet and seats barely more than a dozen. It is for that reason and not its popularity that makes securing a reservation at Ronin harder than getting tickets to a Miley Cyrus concert. The seating arrangement is so awkward that it defies common sense. Guests have the options of sitting either at the bar watching the bartender shave ice balls or at the counter facing a brick wall all night. Either way you will be seated side-by-side your guests, which makes having a conversation impossible.
Abergel tries to do something different with the menu: okra tempura, honey glazed chips, beef with maitake mushrooms and fish I have never heard of: grunt fish, belt fish and trigger fish. But the portions are so pitifully small that calling them “finger food” would be an overstatement. My friends and I paid $800 each and we were about a quarter full by the time we walked out. We joked about going to McDonald’s afterwards and I think one of us actually did.
From the serving staff to patrons, everyone at Ronin is an expat. This is not the kind of place you would hear a word of Cantonese – which is of course well and good. Problem is, random friends of the restaurant staff will show up in the middle of the evening, laughing at inside jokes and giving each other fist bumps and bear hugs. On the night I went, some loud-mouthed guy named Mike walked in with his half drunk friends and started conversing with the restaurant manager at deafening decibels. You have to remember that this is a tiny cave of a space with 14 seats. And so I tapped on Mike’s shoulder and said, as politely as I could, “If you don’t mind keeping it down, there are people trying to eat here.”
Ronin is the kind of place you want to visit once just to know what the hoopla is about. But once you try it, you will not ever want to go back. The restaurant might have the largest collection of Japanese whisky in the city, but it probably has the least repeat business.