June 1, 2017
Matt Abergel’s (formerly Masa and Zuma) Yardbird was the hottest restaurant in Hong Kong in 2011, and somewhat inexplicably it has remained one of the most talked about place, six years after its opening. Those who predicted Yardbird wouldn’t survive because of its no-reservation policy are now crediting this rule as a demand driver. Whatever the cause, this tiny yakitori joint in Sheung Wan still requires hour-long wait on weekdays, which explains why I have yet to pay a visit until a few days ago, one month before its move to a larger space nearby.
I arrived at 18:10 after leaving work early. We were seated on the first floor next to the entrance as the restaurant was already half full; 20 minutes later it was full house on a random Thursday evening. Unlike the many yakitori joints in Causeway Bay frequented by locals and Japanese expats, Yardbird attracts the decidedly different Lan Kwai Fong crowd. As many have opined, this atmosphere feels more like New York than Hong Kong, for better or worse.
The drink menu is especially strong in Japanese whisky. On the food side the menu is consisted mainly of chicken skewers with a few larger dishes which are mostly deep fried. We opted for a handful of chicken skewers and a Caesar Salad. The salad, a mixture of mizuna (Japanese mustard greens) and lettuce topped with dried fish, dried seaweed, vinegar and light Caesar dressing. A refreshing starter with a delightful Japanese twist.
All the chicken are locally sourced. The fastest sold-out portion is the oyster, the two small pieces of dark meat that lie on either side of a chicken’s backbone. Seasoned only with salt, the meat was juicy with a firm texture as a result of finely managed timing.
My preference for dark meat was apparent — next up were two skewers of thigh, one with shiso and the other only salt. The former’s unique aroma couldn’t hide the fact it was slightly overcooked. The latter fared much better, rivaling the oyster as the best skewer of the night.
Food continued to arrive at a steady five-minute clip. We had the chicken meatball, an item I have noticed to be a crowd pleaser not matter the venue. Most yakitori joints can deliver an acceptable version of this dish, and Yardbird’s, served with tare sauce and a raw egg, was better than average. It was juicy and tender.
Seeking a change of taste, we ordered the pork belly, the only non-chicken skewer on the menu. We should have stuck with chicken — the overly-seasoned meat was an endurance test for our gum.
Our final two skewers, skin and tail, were cholesterol bombs. The skins were a tasteless slob of undercooked fat hidden beneath a burnt surface. The tail was in fact a chicken’s rear end, which some believe causes cancer or carries nasty toxins. Such fear is unfounded and in Hong Kong many swear this is the best part of a chicken. Chewy and not overly oily, the tails had a slightly nutty flavour and didn’t make me regret to pack on the fat.
Feeling like one more dish, we ordered a Scotch egg instead of the popular deep fried cauliflowers or corn tempura. Those dishes seemed too large for us and I wanted to see how the distinctly Western snack of Scotch egg would be presented at a yakitori restaurant. The result was a soft-boiled egg topped with tari sauce and mayonnaise; under the cruncky surface was a soft coating of minced meat. Taken in one bite and the taste was similar to takoyaki.
I paid $950 for two, including a discretionary 10% tip. I can see why Yardbird has remained popular for so long as it has successfully targeted the right customer base. From what I observed many come to Yardbird as the first stop of a long night out, even on weekdays. Some of its skewers, namely the dark meat portions, are some of the best I have had in Hong Kong. The atmosphere is lively and the wide-ranging drink list contains something for almost everybody.
Yardbird might well be the best yakitori joint in town — most places offer more than chicken to qualify as a true one. But broaden the scoop a little and include all the staggering number of izakayas, it will take someone who never ventures outside of the expat districts to suggest Yardbird stands out above its peers, many of which offer a more extensive menu of food at roughly 2/3 the price.
Address: 33 Bridges St, Sheung Wan
Opening hours: 18:00 – Midnight; closed on Sunday