Joris Minne: Yard Bird
Bill Wolsey's latest venture is riding high on the current trend of the humble chicken shack in an extraordinary setting
The rolling stone of the restaurant world has struck again with another wacky name. Will we ever tire of Bill Wolsey's indefatigable appetite for strange, earthy names and bad spelling? Never! Who could not love the nutty Goat's Toe, the Cloth Ear or the Bishop's A**e? (I made the last one up).
The Yard Bird is Bill's latest venture, a chicken restaurant above the Dirty Onion bar in Hill Street at the heart of Belfast's Cathedral Quarter. The extraordinary 18th century former linen warehouse which was used as a whiskey store up until 30 years ago, since when it lay unused and unloved, houses both these operations. It has been brought back to life in an unparalleled and very successful reinterpretation of a speakeasy bar and chicken shack, as might appear in a period novel about cotton barons, slaves and heavy pillared houses in the early 20th century Mississippi Delta.
The development is peculiar and not immediately beautiful. My 13-year-old thought the courtyard was pretty, but that the exposed timber frame of an entire two-storey building looked like an industrial gallows. It is spooky, right enough. But once inside, the vibe was, as she thought, distinctly Captain Jack Sparrow's lair and she loved it.
It is fabulously unusual, a restoration project the likes of which we have never seen in Belfast, and an architectural triumph.
The Dirty Onion bar downstairs is loaded with atmosphere thanks to the warmth and throat-hugging smokey turf fire. The tree-trunk sized pillars holding up the building are huge and squat and vestiges of the old warehouse markings and graffiti cover them.
Upstairs, the mood is similarly timbered but brighter, with lots of light emanating from the rotisserie and kitchen. The smells up here are of roast chicken.
Attentive and youthful service brings menus and drinks swiftly to the table, but there is no rush. This is a calm place where even Belfast's new generation of tablet-proppers can relax and enjoy the universal comforts of chicken and timber. And beer. I love beer in these places. Roast chicken, a turf fire and the sound of people's heels tapping, cracking and thudding on wood floors is the perfect sounding board for beer. Naturally there is Yardbird ale, an American-style pale ale brewed by Greene King in Bury St Edmunds.
People may raise an eyebrow and wonder what is wrong with our own ales from Hilden and White Water that this foreign filth has to be imported to our pure beer shores, but it's very nice with chicken.
A whole chicken, cut in half, is brought to share between the two of us. I am with Liz Kennedy, whose chicken cred is unparalleled. We are happy. The marinade of buttermilk, lemon and paprika has the desired effect. A bit longer in the marinade, or a bit more seasoning rubbed into the skin might help the flavour, but it is moist and tasty.
The show-stopper, however, is the avocado salad. This is large enough for two. Avocado, roughly cut into a salad of cos leaves, glories in a unique dressing of lime and lemon juice and olive oil and a further dollop of a finely spiced tomato salsa on top. It is out of this world. Today's is slightly sweeter than during the first visit, two days earlier, when I ordered the same thing.
Skin-on fries are pretty basic and the grilled corn on the cob likewise, although this is perked up with a jug of hot garlic butter.
The mile-deep apple pie with Fivemiletown vanilla ice cream is another success and we conclude that while chicken is the great leveller, the democratic choice, it really does need some additional firepower to make it interesting.
Having said that, children love chicken in all its presentations. Kids will also love the smuggler's lair timbers, adults will marvel at the restoration job and the city will have a new jewel in its restaurant crown.
Avocado salad £4
Corn on the cob £3
Whole chicken £14.50
Apple pie £5
Yardbird Ale £4.25
Glass of shiraz £4.95
San Pellegrino orange £1.95
Espresso x 2 £3.40
3 Hill Street, Belfast BT1 2LA