Yardbird in Hong Kong is ingredient-obsessed (it’s all about chicken), democratic (it doesn’t take reservations) and design-centric (it celebrates skateboard art). And chefs around the world are paying attention. Writer Brook Larmer explains how this little restaurant epitomizes the dining scene of 2013.
Not long after Matt Abergel and Lindsay Jang launched Yardbird, their yakitori restaurant in Hong Kong, the Canadian pair began to notice a curious phenomenon: The raucous crowd of locals and expatriates in the dining room often included a lone man or woman.
As everyone around them ordered rounds of Yardbird’s junmai sake and plates of skewered meat, these solitary diners would quietly sip mineral water. It soon became clear that they were the drivers and maids of Hong Kong tycoons trying to save seats for their bosses, subverting the restaurant’s no-reservation policy. “Maybe it went against the spirit of the place,” Abergel says. “But that was the moment we knew Yardbird had arrived.”
How has a place devoted to the humblest of birds, the chicken, managed to become the most game-changing restaurant in Hong Kong? This is a city of gastronomic excess, after all—a place where no beast is safe from the wok. The restaurant scene here includes hushed Michelin-starred dining rooms with seven sets of cutlery and street stalls where customers gobble down duck and dim sum with a flurry of chopsticks. Yardbird is something different, and when it opened in 2011, it sparked a sort of democratic dining revolution.
The secret of Yardbird’s success begins with Abergel, a 31-year-old who treats chicken on a stick with as much respect as the finest toro. Abergel’s kitchen mantra of mottainai—Japanese for “waste not”—comes from his three years working as a chef at New York City’s Masa. On a recent Friday night, as Yardbird’s sound level rose with the mostly Motown sound track, my table of longtime Hong Kong residents tried yakitori featuring nearly every part of the bird: succulent thighs braised in a savory-sweet, soy-based tare sauce; crackly wafers of skin enfolding plump eringi mushrooms; rich, chewy hearts with ginger and spring onion. And that doesn’t account for the skewers of knee, neck, tail, gizzard and meatball—all from the 50 chickens brought in fresh daily from a farm in Hong Kong’s New Territories. The boldest dish, however, wasn’t chicken at all, despite being called KFC—that stands for Korean Fried Cauliflower, covered in a tangy yuzu-chile sauce).
Along with yakitori, Yardbird has a long and playful drinks menu, with Japanese classics—Nikka whiskey, Hitachino beer—plus homemade brews such as coffee-infused shochu and the popular El Chonie, a blend of beer, tequila and lime in a glass rimmed with yuzu salt.
The laid-back Abergel, who first met Jang in a Calgary skateboarding shop when they were teenagers, downplays his food. “We’re just trying to cook simple, tasty dishes that our four-year-old daughter would love,” he says. Still, his fellow chefs rave. “Yardbird is an amazing restaurant,” says Chris Cosentino of San Francisco’s Incanto, who ate his way through the menu on a visit last year. “What Matt has done is make a very serious food restaurant with some very serious fun.”
For Hong Kong residents accustomed to surly waiters, Yardbird’s rarest offering may be its enthusiastic staff. Jang, who grew up helping out in her father’s Chinese restaurant and later worked as floor captain at New York City’s Nobu 57, says the key was to eliminate Hong Kong’s ubiquitous service charge—which often goes into owners’ pockets—and to inspire staff with pooled tips. My group’s waiter was an engaging 21-year-old named Abu. Born and raised in Hong Kong of Malian and Mauritian parents, Abu not only guided us through the menu, he described how the breastbone is ground into the meatballs to make them crunchy—and, if called upon, he could give that description in four languages.
Yardbird has become a magnet for creative types, as well, as it is located in Hong Kong’s hippest emerging neighborhood: a cluster of quiet streets lined with funky shops selling pastries, teas, art, even wigs, in the city’s Sheung Wan district. “We always wanted to help build a community here,” Jang says. “But we didn’t know it could happen so fast.”
Yardbird has already inspired both collaborators (artist Cody Hudson designed its new sake bottle) and followers (a half-dozen new restaurants in Hong Kong have also eliminated service charges and reservations). Now it has a successor. In January, Abergel and Jang, who are no longer a couple but remain business partners, opened a 14-seat bar called Ronin, serving cocktails, Japanese whiskies and beers with okashi, or snacks, plus some larger dishes. They are expanding on the success they found opening a restaurant that’s revolutionary in Hong Kong, but increasingly familiar in America: one that focuses on delicious food, great service, democratic policies, a spirit of collaboration and, most importantly, as Jang says, a sense of community.