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Foreign Imports

The Canadian duo behind Hong Kong's Yardbird and Rōnin restaurants.

You can get a pint of Molson Canadian at the Keg in Lan Kwai Fong, and a BC Burger Combo from the legendary Vancouver-based burger chain White Spot at any of the six Triple O’s restaurants around Hong Kong. Canadian Culinary Championship winner Makoto Ono introduced Hong Kong to underground supper clubs with his restaurant Liberty Private Works, while Toronto-raised chef Alvin Leung Jr.’s Bo Innovation holds two Michelin stars and is ranked by San Pellegrino as one of the world’s best restaurants. Canadians and Canadian foods are certainly well represented in the Pearl of the Orient, so perhaps it should be no surprise that a pair of the city’s hottest new restaurants are operated by a couple of expat Albertans.

Matt Abergel and Lindsay Jang met in their late teens in Calgary, and today they own Yardbird and Rōnin, two of Hong Kong’s most popular restaurants—he’s the chef, she runs the front of the house. Yardbird, a modern, 52-seat Japanese izakaya restaurant with an emphasis on yakitori (all manner of chicken parts skewered and grilled over charcoal) in the hip Sheung Wan neighbourhood, opened to packed houses in 2011. Rōnin, which opened last year just a few blocks away, is from the no-signage school of restaurants, but despite being marked by only a grey-painted door, it has had no trouble filling its 14 seats. (An additional 12 standing-room-only spots available to walk-in guests are also full on most nights.)

A typical meal at Yardbird has to include sweet corn tempura (a piping-hot cornball of a dish that’s all salty crunch) and a plate of KFC—Korean Fried Cauliflower—that enhances the vegetable’s meaty texture with a thick coating of gochujang chili paste and yuzu kosho. There would be sake, of course, and maybe a shochu-based cocktail. Chicken skewers would follow: hearts with spring onion and ginger, perhaps, or a deeply savoury chicken meatball that you drag through a bowl consisting of a yolk floating in a dark tare sauce, resembling a negative egg.

Where Yardbird evokes the raucous, communal experience of a true izakaya, albeit a brightly lit one with a penchant for old-school R&B and funk, Rōnin, with its dark colour palette, relatively hushed dining room, and emphasis on seafood, feels more reverential and serious. Depending on the day, about half of Rōnin’s diners choose to be served omakase style, forgoing the menu completely and leaving the choices in the hands of the chef. That might include fresh uni, rich and saline, almost tropical, enhanced with fresh nori and panko bread crumbs. There will be sashimi: sea bream, perhaps, with karasumi (cured mullet roe) and the bright freshness of yuzu. The inherent sweetness of simple, thinly sliced snow peas is anchored by the earthiness of walnuts and a rich miso dressing. There is also a menu to order from, and all dishes come quickly—there’s no time to linger. Some guests are moved from bar stools to the standing counter to accommodate the next wave of reservations, and the tiny space is soon buzzing.

It is during a moment of calm in the early afternoon when Rōnin isn’t open that I meet with Abergel and Jang. The two are quietly setting up for the dinner rush. In addition to the two restaurants, Abergel and Jang have two children (Rōnin is named after their young son), and while the pair remain partners in business, they are no longer a couple. Nonetheless, they have an easy familiarity with each other and a shared history that is obvious by the way they finish each other’s sentences. “Lindsay grew up in a restaurant family,” Abergel says. “Her parents owned the Golden Capital Restaurant, your quintessential Chinese Canadian.” Jang interjects, “You can have a hamburger steak and ginger beef.” “She’s exactly what her restaurant is,” adds Abergel. “Canadian Cantonese.”

Jang grew up in Edmonton and moved to Calgary to attend art school. She took a job at a local skateboard/snowboard shop and met Abergel, who supplemented his part-time job with work as a chef at a local Indian restaurant. “After I finished school, I moved to New York and Matt moved to Vancouver,” Jang says. “In the summer of 2004 I went to Vancouver, where Matt was working at a restaurant.” (When asked which one, Abergel says, “It was this weird place that I eventually found out was basically a money-laundering operation. It’s long since disappeared.”)

Matt Abergel and Lindsay Jang first met in Calgary, and today they own Yardbird and Rōnin in Hong Kong—he’s the chef, and she runs the front of house.

The couple started dating, and Abergel moved back to New York with Jang and found a job at Masa, the notoriously expensive sushi restaurant in the Time Warner Center. After the birth of their daughter, Lili, the couple decided that they didn’t want to live in New York anymore and spent a year travelling. Among their destinations, Japan would prove significantly influential to their later exploration of that cuisine.

Around the same time that the money ran out, Abergel was offered a position as head chef at Zuma in Hong Kong. “We’d never even been to Hong Kong before,” he says. Jang continues, “I told Matt, ‘You go to Hong Kong and tell me if I’ll like it there.’ He said I would, so I came here and I hated it. I’d given up my career and moved from New York where I’d been for eight years, and I had no friends.” Jang taught yoga and began developing the Yardbird plan while Abergel worked on extracting himself from Zuma. “We knew we were going to open Yardbird,” Abergel says. “We’d already written a plan for it, we just didn’t know if it was going to be in Vancouver.”

“That was our first choice,” Jang adds. “Or California.” Then, one of Abergel’s customers from Zuma offered up a space in Hong Kong, and a private investor provided funding. “It just felt easy. And Matt had built up a PR buzz, so we felt that it made sense to stay here.”

The publicity afforded them by Abergel’s position at Zuma was the result of a massive campaign by the restaurant’s dedicated PR team, but neither Yardbird nor Rōnin has ever relied on a PR agency to generate their immense coverage. “Matt and I see eye to eye on the advertising/PR aspect,” Jang says. “We grew up where you just put stickers on things or you give your friends free stuff—that’s what advertising is.”

“We make T-shirts and sell them,” Abergel says. Jang adds, “We have stickers that we give away. We did a candle collaboration with Baxter [of California] … We’re about to do a plateware line with Stussy lifestyle brand.” Vans gives shoes to all the staff at Yardbird, while Converse outfits the Rōnin team.

The pair show no signs of slowing down—what’s next for them? “We can continue to do this and open more restaurants in Hong Kong or go to Singapore or Shanghai,” Abergel says, “but we took a leap of faith just being in Asia and starting our own restaurant when we were 28, 29 years old, and I sort of want to be scared again.” The pair’s ambition goes well beyond opening another restaurant—or eight.

Photos by Jason Michael Lang.

Post Date:

March 19, 2014