Ever wondered where all those skins from skinless chicken breasts go? They’re on a skewer at Bird’s Nest Yakitori in Brisbane’s West End, along with the bird’s tail, liver, heart, arteries and cartilage. If that sounds a bit grisly for your tastes, sip your sake and relax, because all the conventional chook bits are offered too.
Yakitori, skewered meat grilled over coals, dates from the 17th century. Originally pheasant, quail and pigeon were used but with the incursion of Western culture into Japan, chicken became popular. Considered a luxury meat, however, mainly offal was used for this simple snack food. With time and cheaper supplies of chicken, yakitori became a commonly eaten food in Japan and today there are “yakitori-ya” all over the country, where people call in to eat yakitori with drinks.
Bird’s Nest is one of the very few yakitori bars in Brisbane. It’s contemporary rather than traditional Japanese in aesthetic; attractive and compact with a sit-up bar overlooking the kitchen. Staff welcome diners with the usual shouted greeting of “Irasshaimase!”
Deep-fried organic tofu with shallots and bonito flakes. Photo: Harrison Saragossi
It’s as much about drinking as eating here, and consequently there’s an excellent list of Japanese and Australian craft beers, wine, whisky and sake (or “nihonshu” as the restaurant points out is the correct term; “sake” simply being Japanese for alcohol.) If want to try but don’t know a lot about it, it’s worth asking the knowledgeable staff for a sake recommendation – the good stuff is guaranteed to wash the taste of that rough fire-water experience many of us have had in our youth right out of your mouth.
The food comes mostly on skewers, cooked in an open, glass-fronted kitchen, grilled over binchotan: a highly prized charcoal made from oak. It burns high and long and imparts a cleaner tasting smokiness to the food than regular charcoal.
The menu has choices of “omakase” (chef’s choice) and different sets but you can also freestyle. Putting yakitori aside for a brief moment, make a quick detour to try the chicken kaarage – I reckon it might very well be the best this side of Tokyo. A mysteriously, light sort of dry (as opposed to greasy) batter turns out to be made with potato flour, lightly spiced and encasing chicken pieces that have been cooked twice and perfectly retain their juiciness. A slick of pale green wasabi mayo, a lemon wedge and some greenery are the only accompaniments required.
Free-range chicken skin at Bird’s Nest Yakitori. Photo: Harrison Saragossi
Back to the yakitori – they are both small and, at just $4 each, affordable, so you can choose to eat your way through the menu (or “beak to tail”). If the internal chicken bits don’t appeal, at least try the “torikawa” – chicken skin threaded onto a skewer. It’s like a lighter, crisper (and possibly less calorific) form of pork crackling. Torikawa is eaten with salt instead of tare, the in-house made sauce that comes with some of the other yakitori. Chicken tenderloin “sasami” comes with neither, but instead a choice of wasabi mayo or ume and shiso leaves.
“Atsuage”, crisp deep-fried tofu with wisps of shallots and papery shreds of bonito, has a yin-yang salty-citrus ponzu accompaniment. How they manage to get softly boiled quail eggs (“shiratama”) onto skewers without breaking remains a mystery, but really who cares – they are utterly delicious.
Cherry tomatoes wrapped in a thin membrane of pork belly come with a warning from our waitperson – they are hot little bombs likely to either cause third-degree burns to your tongue if you don’t let them cool, or may explode on first bite covering you in tomato juice and seeds. Simple, sweet, hot and salty, they are totally worth the risk.
Free-range karaage chicken. Photo: Harrison Saragossi
Of all the yakitori, “buta bura” (Murray Valley pork belly served with seeded mustard) is the least successful and needed to be accompanied by something with a brighter acid tang to cut through the richness.
Bird’s Nest is an impressive set-up, neat, aesthetically pleasing, wallet-friendly and – with the kitchen open until at least 10.30pm, perfect for a late night snack and drink. Kanpai!
Bird’s Nest Yakitori will be at the Night Noodle Markets, July 17-27.