It’s a bad thing, I know, but sometimes I can’t help being cynical about a place with great ambience. To me, the possibility is always there that the ambience itself is a cynical calculation – that, instead of complementing the food, it is meant to substitute it as a reason for charging lots of money for mediocrity. But after a few visits to Ronin, I wonder if I’m not seeing this the wrong way – whether, for cafes at least, the atmosphere of a place can count for a lot.
This is because Ronin’s interior is quite sexy indeed. Secreted away with a narrow, recessed frontage, wedged between a renovation site and a joyless office building, Ronin relies on sound to advertise its presence – specifically, cool jazz music. You follow the calls of twirling muted trumpets, and end up in a place vaguely reminiscent of All Saints at Spitalfields – they’ve swapped in bare concrete for the brickwork, but there’s the heavy, worn and marked wood and clanging metal tables and chairs, and the filament bulbs, their spiral filaments giving off a sultry glow. They’ve certainly got the formerly-warehouse-now-speakeasy look down pat.
The languor of the dining area contrasts with the activity in the open plan kitchen; pick a good vantage point and you can watch your orders being prepared. The menu leans, louchely, against the wall on top of a metal shelf, and tells me in what is no doubt a velvety, nicotine-ruffed voice that the roast beef sandwich contains Brie. And what can I say to that? I’m a man of simple and predictable tastes.
And quite a sandwich it is, too, appropriately hunky for its price. The beef is thinly sliced, almost hidden under rocket leaves and takuan, but works nicely with the funky creaminess of the Brie; it’s a tangy, clean sort of meatiness. On the other hand, they are generous with the cheese, a slab of creamy funkiness; the Brie’s probably been sitting around for a while, which is exactly what it should be doing. It wrestles the beef for dominance, and honestly I’d say the cheese ends up on top, not that I mind.
A mouthfeel contrast comes from the takuan, whose mild sweetness is brought out by horseradish. The only flaw is the bread, which seems to have been sitting a while too, and is hard enough to hurt gums and scrape tongues. I end up eating one half of the sandwich open-faced. I know a thing or two they could do with bread this scrapey, actually – maybe dip it in egg, give it a little skillet love.
It’s intriguing how a dish’s names in different languages tell us what they think of that dish. Calling it French toast makes it luxurious. It is as if the reason the toast is egged and fried is so you can eat it without crumbs soiling your YSL dress – because that would be truly unfortunate, having a crumb-strewn dress at a soiree.
The French, however, call it pain perdu (lost bread), because they know why they egged the toast – it’s because the baguette has gone tooth-breakingly stale but you’re not about to throw a perfectly serviceable baguette away just like that. It’s not glamour, it’s a salvage operation. In fact I suspect the French would take the earlier sandwich bread and give it the perdu treatment.
Ronin, however, cleaves mostly to the first interpretation. For the record, they don’t use stale sandwich bread; it’s our old frenemy brioche, all fluff and butter and now wearing a bronzed jacket of custard. It would all be too much, if not for the other things that accompany it. Hazelnut butter is a clean, high note, if a little subtle in comparison with liberally-drizzled syrup. Bacon could be a bit crisper, but its insistent saltiness stands up well. The star, though, is the braised apple – halves of green apples braised to spongy tenderness, just barely holding its shape, retaining traces of tartness beneath a cinnamon-scented broth.
Mint mocha is not new, but the signature Wicked mint mocha that Ronin offers is far more delicate compared to the hideously over-sugared offerings from some coffee chains. A grainy, streaky sludge holds the chocolate and mint, the latter opening the way for the former’s sweetness and slight acidity. The only issue is that the coffee itself is rather muted, even compared to the drink’s milkiness.
So the food is pretty good. I’d eat it, and very gladly. And yet, soaking up the music and watching attractive baristas swirl foam patterns on a flat white, I actually think the food is outshone by the atmosphere here. There are plenty of cafes that do the cargo crate, rough steel and warehouse look, but it so often turns into a cluttered, rather slapdash job. Not Ronin, though – and it’s the restraint, the thought into an appropriate soundtrack at an appropriate volume for the decor, that makes the difference. What Ronin really gives best, if you ask me, are its cool vibes. And what a lovely gift it makes.
17 Hongkong Street
Mon-Fri, 8am – 6pm
Sat-Sun, 8am – 7.30pm