- Photography by Mr Until Chan
Yardbird, if it wasn't already clear from the name, is a chicken joint. That name doesn't quite do the place justice, though. This Hong Kong hot spot, the brainchild of Calgary-born Mr Matt Abergel and Ms Lindsay Jang, makes a delicacy of the humble bird. Taking its cues from a typical Japanese yakitori restaurant, Yardbird serves breast meat skewered and lightly grilled with wasabi and soy, wings roasted with sea salt and shichimi, and succulent, boned thigh glazed with the restaurant's own-recipe tare - a sticky-sweet soy reduction made with chicken stock that's been simmered for 18 hours. That's not all: the menu also includes skewers of oyster (the body part, not the slimy sea creature), rib, neck, heart, liver, gizzard, tail, skin and knee (yes, chicken knee). You can even order inner thigh. "Here in Hong Kong, there's really no novelty value in serving innards," says Ms Jang by way of clarifying what launched Yardbird into foodie heaven. "Besides, the locals actually regard our menu as kinda conservative... we don't even serve the feet."
We said 'forget what everybody else in Hong Kong is doing. We're going to play by our own rules'
When Yardbird opened in 2011, it wasn't the contents of the menu so much as what's written underneath it that ruffled a few feathers among the city's dining establishment. It was the words "no service charge" combined with a strict no-reservations policy implied by the words "come early, come often". They're both symptoms of a casual dining culture that has exploded in cities such as New York and London. In Hong Kong, however, where table reservations and a mandatory 10% service charge are still the widely accepted norm, Yardbird's democratic dining policies came as a shock to the system.
"One of the first things we noticed after moving here from New York was how hard it was to find a good, everyday dining spot," says Ms Jang. "We were accustomed to visiting restaurants on a casual, weekly or biweekly basis. And we were happy to queue for good food. So when we started up our own restaurant, we said, 'forget what everybody else in Hong Kong is doing. We're going to play by our own rules.'" If the nightly queues that continue to form on Bridges Street in the Sheung Wan district are anything to go by, their approach seems to be working.
The downstairs bar has a focus on Japanese
whisky offering 30 variations
Of course, the queue outside any restaurant is fundamentally a reflection of the quality of its food. At the helm of the kitchen is Mr Abergel, who earned his stripes at New York's three Michelin-starred sushi restaurant, Masa, before training at Zuma in London prior to becoming executive chef at Zuma in Hong Kong. His fine-dining expertise shows through in even his simplest dishes, which are characterised by a minute attention to detail. Chicken thighs are split into individual muscle groups before being grilled individually to ensure even cooking, and chicken meatballs are mixed with panko breadcrumbs and finely ground cartilage for a hint of added texture. Freshness is all-important, too: meat comes from chickens butchered freshly that morning, and nothing is kept overnight. As a result, popular cuts are known to sell out before 8pm (the oyster is a particular favourite). If the food created the buzz, it was Yardbird's vibe (Ms Jang describes it as "like a house party," and says that "you wouldn't take your grandma there") that secured its status as Hong Kong's "it" restaurant. The downstairs bar rapidly fills up with diners waiting patiently for a table as the service team zip around the room in leather workmen's aprons and Vans sneakers dispensing cocktails from the lively drinks menu - anyone for a Bloody Kim Jong Il? - to a Motown soundtrack. It's a raucous, sake-fuelled atmosphere that's only enhanced by the enforced wait. "A lot of the fun of it is hanging around," says Ms Jang. "People have accepted it as part of the experience." It helps that the surrounding area has experienced a surge in popularity since the restaurant opened - and Hong Kong's year-round warm weather and relaxed alcohol laws, which allow drinking on the street, certainly don't hurt, either.
A lot of the fun of it is hanging around. People have accepted it as part of the experience
If you're planning on paying Yardbird a visit, Ms Jang suggests putting your name on the list and killing time just round the corner at Aberdeen Street Social, a new venture from Mr Jason Atherton, the chef behind London's acclaimed Pollen Street Social - and the latest high-profile restaurant in Hong Kong to adopt a no-reservations policy. It begs the question: has Yardbird set a precedent? Ms Jang laughs off the suggestion that she and Mr Abergel were progenitors of some radical new dining movement, explaining instead that they were simply "on the crest of a wave". But with even the most well-heeled diners heading to Sheung Wan to see what the fuss is about, it's hard to ignore the impact that this game-changing little chicken joint has had on the city's dining scene.
Yardbird is at 33-35 Bridges Street in Hong Kong's Sheung Wan district. Get there early - and tell them MR P sent you. yardbirdrestaurant.com
Words by Mr Chris Elvidge, Senior Copywriter, MR PORTER