In Hong Kong, this is where the world's chefs want to eat

Chef Matt Abergel (centre) directing the kitchen team grilling yakitori chicken at Yardbird in Hong Kong.
Chef Matt Abergel (centre) directing the kitchen team grilling yakitori chicken at Yardbird in Hong Kong.PHOTO: NYTIMES

HONG KONG • Yardbird is not the world's best restaurant.

But if you were to pool the world's best modern restaurant trends and traits, Yardbird is pretty much the restaurant you would end up with.

That is why, eight years after opening, Yardbird remains one of the most popular and influential restaurants in Hong Kong, a city with no shortage of delicious food.

Chefs from all over consider Yardbird their clubhouse when they visit the city: It is a place they often say they wish they had opened themselves.

"It occupies that rare sweet spot," said Corey Lee, the chef at In Situ in San Francisco. "It's just progressive enough, just traditional enough and just affordable enough that it satisfies a huge range of diners."

The two owners - Matt Abergel, the chef, and Ms Lindsay Jang, the business manager - grew up in Canada. Like droves of other expatriates, they are entirely at home in this multinational city, where both Chinese and English are official languages and the food is multilingual.

On its face, Yardbird is a chic and modern Japanese-style izakaya - a casual restaurant where drinking is as central as eating - with a speciality in yakitori, charcoal-grilled chicken skewers.

It has a crisp, black-and-blond visual identity, from the customdesigned chairs to the labels on the house line of Japanese whiskey.

There are Mexican-style beer cocktails and Korean-style fried cauliflower. On any given night, the servers, cooks and customers have arrived here from all over the world.

As at other modern classics like the Momofuku restaurants and Relae and Joe Beef, the food is unfussy, the room is bustling and there is not a tablecloth or chef's toque in sight. Abergel usually wears shorts and a T-shirt in the kitchen; the 1.8m-long grill filled with binchotan, Japanese charcoal that burns bright red and superhot, is relentless.

"The secret is that it created a community that everyone wants to be part of," said Richard Ekkebus, the Dutch-born head of culinary operations at the elegant Landmark Mandarin Oriental hotel in Hong Kong.

"The vibe is addictive, the food is delicious and unpretentious, and who doesn't like grilled chicken? But it's all done with a high level of technique."

Abergel's signature dishes are a nod to international classics: a cool tomato salad with tofu skins and shiso leaf that is a play on the ubiquitous Caprese; French-style chicken liver mousse with toasted Japanese milk bread; a Caesar salad seasoned with dried seaweed, miso and fried baby anchovies.

But in the realm of yakitori, grilled chicken skewers, he hews strictly to Japanese tradition. Every part of the bird, from Achilles' heel to soft knee bone to neck, is used, each one butchered, skewered and seasoned in a specific way.

Most important to local customers, the birds are the famously fatty Chinese breed called "three yellow" (skin, beak, feet) that arrive, alive and squawking, each morning at the nearby Sheung Wan wet market.

Since most Hong Kong cooks and chefs shop daily and expect extremely fresh ingredients, the city has multiple hubs for vendors who sell - and butcher and trim and chop - produce, fish and meat on site.

"Until Yardbird opened, expat chefs would come here and dismiss the quality of local products," said chef Jowett Yu of Ho Lee Fook, an informal restaurant nearby with a Taiwanese-inspired menu,

"But philosophically, Matt just didn't believe you had to fly in frozen chickens from France that took two days to arrive, instead of using fresh chicken raised 30km from the restaurant."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 13, 2019, with the headline 'In Hong Kong, this is where the world's chefs want to eat'. Print Edition | Subscribe