Saturday, April 28, 2012

Restaurant Review: Yardbird

Location: Bridges Street, Sheung Wan
Type of food: yakitori
Rating: *** (3 out of 5)

Yardbird, literally translated, means chicken in Japanese. The restaurant is so named  because it serves yakitori, or grilled chicken skewers. Yakitori is a popular bar snack in Japan, especially for salary-men who want to blow off steam by breathing in barbeque smoke. But at Yardbird, opened last summer in an up-and-coming neighborhood off Hollywood Road, bar food is dressed up as a delicacy.

Yardbird in Sheung Wan

At the tender age of 23, Canadian chef Matt Abergel was offered a job at Masa, the ultra high-end sushi restaurant in Midtown Manhattan that Forbes magazine ranked the most expensive restaurant in America for five consecutive years. Abergel was the sorcerer’s apprentice to celebrity chef Masayoshi Takayama, who taught him a thing or two about Japanese cooking and everything about charging exorbitant prices for it. With Masa on his CV, the boy wonder moved to Hong Kong two years ago and became Executive Chef at Zuma, a bankers’ hangout at the Landmark. Last July, Abergel felt ready to go on his own and opened Yardbird to huge fanfare. 

Every magazine and food critic in the city has raved about it. Time Out even gave it an unprecedented full-star review and named it “best newcomer of 2011.” Then again, in the same Time Out review that conferred the restaurant a five-star rating, the food columnist writes, "Small touches abound [at Yardbird] – jars to discard skewer sticks and a diner style drinks board." To be impressed by such ordinary objects present in every yakitori-ya is like being wowed by a lazy susan in a Chinese restaurant. Sometimes you have to wonder the credentials and impartiality of these reviewers.

Chef and entrepreneur Matt Abergel

Yardbird is hip, sassy and it doesn’t take reservations. It is the it-place, the talk-of-the-town and the flavor-of-the-month. It is where the in-crowd comes to see and be seen, where gweilo customers high-five waiters and waitresses (I actually saw that) and where early birds get the worm and all others get turned away. The waiting staff is mostly expats – American or Asian American – who are friendly and knowledgeable about the menu. Quite rare for Hong Kong, they all seem to love their job probably because they are tipped well. They also look uniformly attractive. “I guess good-looking kids… just hang out together,” Abergel recently told a magazine, sounding more like a store manager at Abercrombie & Fitch than a young chef. 

Staff toasting to another "cha-ching" night

I have two problems with Yardbird. First, it is extremely noisy. I don’t mean noisy like a Sunday morning at a dim sum restaurant. I mean noisy as in the stereo is blasting 80s hip-hop music while customers and staff shout over each other in a tenement building that echoes like a cave. But many of my younger friends actually like it and call that “good vibes.” Call me old-fashioned then, for I still like my dinner conversation. At Yardbird, I kept pointing at my ear and mouthing “I can’t hear you” to my guest sitting across from me.

Second, Yardbird will break your piggy bank. My guest and I spent $1,700 (including tips) on an okay dinner for two. That includes, among other things, a $180 salad and a $140 plate of bite-sized fried chicken. If you want to drop that kind of cash on a meal, you are better off doing it at Lung King Heen or Mandarin Grill, where real food (not bar snacks) are prepared with real ingredients (not chicken skin and bone) by real chefs (not some kids flipping skewered meat on the barbeque like they do in Shek O).

Not exactly wallet-friendly

Overall, the food at Yardbird is on the salty side and almost every dish is either deep fried or grilled. The only memorable items on the menu are sweet corn tempura and Korean fried cauliflower with a gimmicky name “KFC." At the end of the day, however, grilled chicken is always just grilled chicken, no matter how much you dress it up. 

10 comments:

  1. Just gulped down this article of yours, really like it (and your signature humour) though I didn't expect it to be so bad. Especially the noise and the din, I thought it looks quite decent from the outside !!! : p

    Christine

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  2. Perhaps I was a little harsh. But it gets on my nerves that every magazine and food critic jumped on the bandwagon and made the place sound so incredible. It is not.

    Jason

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  3. Never been there. From your pic (you sure are a good photographer, man) I was expecting a small cosy cafetaria style restaurant around that slightly quieter area, maybe with a good cuppa or something, at least away from the city centre. Reminds me of the overseas quaint cafes. So I guess it is not on my must-try-out list now, especially at that price for deep fried chicken, man, I might as well go to the REAL KFC !

    Christine

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  4. That's not my picture, BTW.

    Jason

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  5. Hilarious. "gweilos high fiving the waitstaff."

    Lily

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  6. Hello Jason

    Liked your review of Yardbird - and agree with you, though I think that the food is more suspect than you say. Strange flavours, not quite right (and I happen to like yakitori and the way it's done in Japan) and curiously succulent, which can't come from just normal brining.

    But 'gastropub' is a normal word, not coined by this young chef - and has been around for a bit, certainly in Britain. That said, Yardbird is not a 'gastropub'. A 'gastropub' is a pub - with a good menu.

    Hope you will take the remarks in the spirit they are made and look forward to seeing you next week,

    Dominic

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  7. Thanks, Dominic. Great point about gastropub, though it's not a word you hear everyday in North America. I have edited that part out. Thanks for catching that!

    Jason

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    Replies
    1. Loved the humour and candidness of this review. Will be a new frequent visitor of your blog.

      By the way, I also read your review of 'Tin Lung Heen' and wanted to suggest that you try - if you haven't already - 'West Villa Restaurant 西苑酒家' (in Lee Gardens, Causeway Bay) for their signature BBQ pork as well :)

      J

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  8. Thanks, J. Do visit my review blog and my other blog "As I See It" often.

    I have tried West Villa a couple of times (not entirely impressed), but I haven't tried their roast pork. Perhaps I will now!

    Jason

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  9. It just fried chicken, no matter how deep it is fried.I am shocked by the price and its bites is even worse their barks! I wonder if I will have a feeling of "being an idiot " after having a meal like that. Probably high fiving with those staffs will help me forgot my skepticism.

    Stephen

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