Review: Whiskey Bird puts twist on traditional Japanese skewers

If I had to guess which way of cooking meat is the oldest, which technique was favored by our loincloth-wearing, cave-dwelling ancestors, I would probably say “shoving hunks of meat on a stick and holding it over a fire.” It is a culinary invention that was spontaneously invented in dozens of places across the entire world. Skewered, charred meat might be called one thing in Nigeria or something entirely different in India, the two traditions may have never once crossed, and, yet, the idea is essentially the same. Put meat on a stick. Make it hot.

Such is the pleasure of Whiskey Bird, a place that draws on the Japanese tradition of putting stuff on sticks and cooking it. If that imprecise phrase sounds irreverent, well, Whiskey Bird is a place with an irreverent, imprecise eye to tradition. Chef Chad Crete and manager Anthony Vipond have put together a menu headlined by meats on a stick. The skewers here range from octopus to sausage-stuffed peppers to pork belly, and yet this spread of various meats is described as “yakitori,” the Japanese name for skewered grilled chicken. Like I said, a little imprecise, but you get the point.

In fact, the best way to enjoy Whiskey Bird is to just order all of the skewers. A cute, enameled pan will arrive bearing a meaty but balanced spread. The octopus skewer will bear small, tender hunks of tentacle with dense, richly spiced Chinese sausage. It is a divine combination. Two caps of shiitake mushroom will be touched with char and a creamy, salty sauce. Pork belly, rather than cut in the thin ribbons common to Japanese izakayas, is cut into clean, geometric cubes that boast a fried crisp exterior. Even better, that crisp surface gives way to tender, juicy fall-apart meat and fat inside. Green peppers, cut in half and stuffed with chorizo and cotija cheese, are a satisfying twist on the more common shishito pepper skewers.

I could go on. The skewers here are priced individually and bear only two or three bites per stick, so you may want to order more than one each to satisfy a crowd. You’ll certainly want to order a drink. Skewers like these are more or less perfect drinking food — you can peck at them casually during conversation — and the restaurant’s name is Whiskey Bird, after all.

The bar here isn’t stocked with a deep cellar of rare or pricey finds that whiskey drinkers sometimes seek out, but it does offer a respectable range, including bottles from local distiller American Spirit Whiskey. The cocktail list is mostly familiar standards: Manhattan, Sazerac, margarita. The French 95, a French 75 made with bourbon instead of gin, is about as unusual as the list gets. It is a just fine combination.

The quality of your cocktail, though, may depend on the hour of the day that you order it. One late, busy Saturday night, I found both a Sazerac and an Old-Fashioned to be much too watery and diluted to achieve the strong flavors that such cocktails should boast. On an early weekday evening, though, I found those same cocktails to be as strong and full of flavor as they should be. It’s possible the closing bartender may not be keeping a close enough eye on the ice, which can melt more quickly in the late evening.

This is a pleasant place to spend the late evening. In those hours, it is easy to appreciate the hip, loud music, the dark dining room, the blue glow of a neon sign, and the bright, glittering open kitchen. No doubt the atmosphere has endeared the restaurant to the neighborhood.

In many ways, Whiskey Bird is a restaurant shaped by its neighborhood, which is roughly where Morningside and Virginia-Highland meet. There is a small section of the menu devoted to tacos, an odd tic I’ve noticed at several Virginia-Highland restaurants that otherwise have little to do with Mexican food. While having dinner one night at the bar, two members of the Atlanta Bocce Ball league wondered aloud, while waiting for their drinks, if I was waiting on a Tinder date. I had to explain that I stopped dating so long ago that I don’t even know which direction is the good swipe. I asked why they would think that. “Well, everybody else here is,” one said while gesturing down the bar. At a quick glance, she appeared to be right.

Of course, there are plenty of dishes aside from skewers that you might consider ordering. A couple of plates of veggies can play fine foils to the meaty skewers. A bowl of shaved Brussels sprout salad, laced with lightly sweet Asian pear, sugary spiced pecans, and mild lemon-tahini dressing, is a fine, generously portioned option. Chinese broccoli arrives quite al dente and piled with a huge dollop of thick sesame dressing. Not bad.

The larger plates here are, indeed, impressively large. An entree of pork tenderloin, marinated with gochujang and served alongside a pile of napa cabbage, roasted mushrooms, and cherries, was so massive that I am tempted to think that it exceeded the promised weight of 16 ounces. I was very impressed with tender, juicy meat, though I think the flavor of gochujang was lost somewhere in the jumble of cabbage and charred meat.

I had high hopes for the whole roasted cauliflower, which is served with cheesy miso fondue, fried shallots and everything-bagel-style seasoning. In my head, that sounded a little like an everything bagel with cream cheese made with cauliflower. But on my plate, the cauliflower underwhelmed, the flavors oddly reminiscent of French onion soup mix.

You’ll do better, I think, with just another plate of the skewers. Double up on the octopus and pork belly. Order another round of cocktails and, remember, you’re enjoying the ancient, beautiful tradition of putting some meat on a stick.

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