Beijing Boyce II

Welcome to issue two of my yet-to-be-named newsletter. It features

  • Tequila Time at John Bull
  • Frosty Phil’s
  • The Battles of Sanlitun
  • The Poop on Doodoo
  • Reader Mail
  • Kraft-D the Critic
  • Five Questions for Frank
  • Final Sips

For the sake of space, I’ve pushed two pieces – $10,000 Wine Glasses and Books: Those Things Made of Paper – to next time. Thanks for the many comments about the launch issue. Below, I address a few, including whether or not I am trying to get rich from this newsletter. BB.

17 tequila shots; hold the lemon and salt

My tequila shooting life is largely limited to senors Jose Cuervo and Pepe Lopez, accompanied by their amigos lemon and salt. So, it was an eye-opener when Frank Siegel of John Bull Pub hosted a tasting with more than a dozen brands. I sipped my way through 17 of them, with every (partial) shot taken straight up and warm. Amazingly, even a novice like me could detect differences in acidity and sweetness and that some tasted of oak, some left a nice slow burn on the palate and some made you want to hack up a hairball.

A Mexican trade promotion rep provided a tequila primer – the drink is made from blue agave plants; it can be labeled as tequila if it contains at least 51% of this agave, so go for 100% brands unless you want mystery alcohol; aged tequilas are yellow due to storage in barrels, although cheaper brands cheat by using food coloring; and so on. With a dozen visiting reps from Mexican distilleries on hand, the event was fun, educational and surprisingly sobering. The drinks and buffet of tacos, burritos, rice, nachos and salsa were RMB120 – tremendous value. Frank, who opened the city’s first non-hotel bar (see Five Questions for Frank below), is now serving Mexican fare every Wednesday.

Frosty Phil’s

There’s no shortage of places in Beijing with RMB10 Qingdao, but Phil’s – among the remaining holdouts on Sanlitun South – has the AB advantage: A) they provide a frosted glass; B) they tip the glass before pouring, thereby leaving a preferable amount of foam. Phil’s has a stand up bar, a few chairs by the window, and small tables and chairs spotted about in a room modestly broken up by pillars. That means enough nooks and crannies to simultaneously be “our place” for couples, a hangout for a group of buddies, or a stop on the way home from work. Besides the neighborhood feel, the friendly staff provides an eclectic mix of music, from Supertramp to George Michael to Don McLean. Where else but Phil’s can you enjoy beer in a frosted glass while listening to Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff”?

The Battles of Sanlitun

It’s a dog eat dog and bar eat bar world and Sanlitun is no exception. At least three different pairs of establishments are going head to head there.

Martini madness: The soap opera surrounding First Café continues. In the last episode, we learned how two Chinese bartenders came to the big city and worked for foreign owners at a martini bar only to see the place’s popularity and their workload soar, while their benefits remained, to put it kindly, stable. Disgruntled, they broke free about a month ago and have now found an investor and set up shop in front of their old workplace. Grudges, revenge, cut-throat competition, this scene’s got it all – with a twist of lemon.

Our dynamic bartending duo thinks their popularity with previous patrons will bring in droves of customers. (How do I know? They said so. While we sampled three 12-year-old whiskies I brought back from vacation. Maybe they didn’t say “droves,” but they definitely used “most” and “lots.” Trust me. I don’t make this stuff up.) First Café’s best feature was excellent drinks, and especially martinis, but it also had a potent mix of coziness and interesting customers. This new bar – called Midnight: don’t get me started on the name – is about twice as big as First Café’s top floor and it will be hard to create a similar ambience. Here’s the thing: great drinks work due to the recipe. If you take the ingredients and change the formula, you toy with disaster. And that’s what’s happened to First Café as a bar. Let’s hope things don’t go sour.

As the worm turns: More precisely, it’s wriggled from Sanlitun North to just off Sanlitun South, just down from where it meets Gongti North. Bookworm leaves behind former food partner Le Petit Gourmand, which has a sign proclaiming to the world that yes, it is open, essential given the rubble surrounding the place. The new Bookworm’s interior is clean, comfortable and spacious, with three lounge areas, reasonably priced drinks (RMB12 for an Espresso or diet Coke; RMB15 for Yanjing draft), 14ooo-plus books available for loan and hundreds for sale, excellent service, and the continuing lecture series. (I’m still having nightmares thanks to Mark Benecke, the forensic scientist who specializes in etymology and took us step by step – or, rather, picture by picture – through solving a crime by looking at insects on a corpse’s body. The talk was appropriately titled, “The Great Maggot Detective.” The last seminar was by Jim McGregor, who spoke to a packed house about his new book, One Billion Customers.) Besides being almost electrocuted by a malfunctioning lamp chord, my only criticisms about the Bookworm would be that the music is too loud at times and that it is going to be too popular. As for Le Petit Gourmand, it’s hanging in as long as possible in a location destined for redevelopment.

Not lonely at the top: Bar Blu was known for having a most big and most excellent rooftop. Then it got whacked in half. Before you could pop the caps on a couple of Coronas, Top Club opened on the other side, separated by a two-meter barrier, apparently by the brains behind nearby Kai Club, which specializes in cheap drinks and is popular with students. I have yet to visit Top Club, but have heard from others that it offers a decent rooftop lounge. As for Bar Blu, it remains for me a mystery. On one hand, it has decent service at times and a good happy hour. On the other, I, and other acquaintances, have sometimes found the staff arrogant (and forgetful about bringing back change). Will the real Bar Blu please stand up?

The Poop on Doodoo

This review is about six weeks late, but I’ll include it anyway: Zing by Doodoo’s is the direct descendent of Zing, where the staff once took my order three times in an hour and never once brought me a drink. I complained to management later by email and they offered free dinner for me and my friends. Hmm, first they lose revenue for three beverages; then they offer to take on the expense of feeding my ravenous buddies (which was nice). How could such a business model survive?

The new Zing by Doodoo’s uses one of its managers in its ad. In the first one, she wears some kind of semi-transparent gold wrapping paper, which provides coverage equivalent to a bikini (for which, if I may make an entirely clinical observation, she has a more than adequate physique). This seems like a takeoff on Centro’s provocative ads and seems strange for a place featuring drinks, food, a swimming pool and occasionally, if rumors are true, Polynesian dancers.

I checked out the new Zing (the one by Doodoo) about six weeks ago, on the most humid night of the summer. The haze was so thick that if you stuck your arm out, your hand couldn’t find its way back. I walked the 800 meters there from my office in the belief that ice-cold beverages, served by wait staff wearing gold paper, would await the end of my long march. My pets, prepare for a short review. I walked in and the four fully-clothed employees at the bar looked up and then went back to their task which, from where I was standing, was doing nothing.

I wandered into the middle area, full of empty tables, and did my best “I have disposable income” imitation, but some prankster must have glued the employees to their stools because they were permanently stuck there. I warranted a glance or two, but only that. Is this what the Galapagos Islands is like, with lizards lying in the sunshine, occasionally accumulating the energy to raise a foot or flick out a tongue? Anyway, I waited a minute, then another, and then grabbed my bag and left, with yet another experience at Zing’s sans drink under my belt. On the way out, did I hear the faint sound of a toilet flushing? Bye bye, Doodoo?

Reader Mail

We get e-mail – more messages than you can count on several fingers on one hand. Here are four that made me furrow my brow and dedicate some thought.

Is this [newsletter] a commercial endeavor? – F.S.

Yes. And now that I just dreamed for one second that I could make money from my amateur observations of Beijing’s food and beverage scene, let me be honest. No. This is a financially nonviable endeavor. Its simple aim is to provide views and news about Beijing’s food and beverage scene, mostly in the Central Business District, with occasional tales about good and bad taxi drivers, housing, shopping, public spitting, and who knows what else. But if someone out there DOES want to pay me for this, feel free to indulge yourself.

Your articles are really long. – L.S.

That was my gut reaction, too, but then I decided that too much food and drink writing out there is short, smart-alecky and aloof. Plus, I’m not beholden to sponsors or the need to fit into x number of column inches, as is the print media.

Who else is getting this newsletter? – P.S.

Most readers are people I know, and people they know, who love not only food and drink, but also have quite a bit of disposable income to pursue that passion. They range from diplomats to homemakers to English teachers to entrepreneurs. The mailing list includes many people who own or work in bars, restaurants and wine companies.

I would appreciate less prose and more recommendations of wines. – C. D.

This sounds as though it came from the “dog ate my homework” school, but I lost my Hilton wine tasting notes on a bus headed for the Great Wall. (No doubt, the driver is reading my drivel at the red lights.) I’ll try to include more specifics on wines, whiskies, tequilas and other beverages in the future.

Why don’t you turn this into a blog? – Too many people to list

People have suggested I do this or add pictures to the newsletter. For now, I’m keeping it a simple, text-based newsletter, but if the readership keeps growing, I’ll go online.

Kraft-D the Critic

My friends Kevin, a.k.a. Kraft-D, and “Alpha” Veda were up from Shanghai during the October holiday. Here’s K-D’s quick wrap-ups of various eateries and drinkeries we visited on his first day here: Steaks & Eggs (“The test for a chicken Caesar salad is whether the lettuce is cold and crisp and the chicken is warm – and it was. And they have bottomless coffee. More places should do this”); Stone Boat (“The service was poor and the coffee wasn’t good, but it was great weather for sitting out on the deck. I saw a fish jump out of the pond [in Ritan Park].”); Le Petit Gourmand (“With all those demolished buildings, this place looks like it’s in the middle of a war zone – ground zero. We sat down because they told us it was the Bookworm, but we figured out that it had moved.); the Bookworm (“Great ambience, great qi, good prices, a real you’re-welcome-here feeling”), the Tree (“Pretty good pizza, but the salad was kind of limp. Good crowd.”); Apertivo (“The wine of the month idea is a good idea and RMB18 for beers was pretty good value. It was nice to sit out on the patio.”)

We also made two trips to Houhai and one to the Great Wall, where we talked marketing strategies for an hour with those beverage sellers who must spend half the day dragging their cans and bottles (and ice!) up there, but I’ll save that stuff for the next newsletter.

Five Questions with Frank

A reporter from this yet-to-be-named newsletter stopped by John Bull Pub last Thursday to chat with owner Frank Siegel, credited with opening, in 1989, the city’s first non-hotel bar – the aptly named Frank’s Place. Over coffee, he gave us the rundown on 16 years of Beijing bar history and then answered five questions:

I take it you didn’t have Guinness on tap back then. What drinks did you offer?

We started with bottles of Beijing draft; the draft itself came later. San Miguel out of Hong Kong was big. At one time, we had Miller draft. There was actually a Miller beer garden at the Asian Games Village and we eventually got the beer. Spirits were never a problem.

That tequila tasting was excellent. What’s the best event you’re ever organized?

Frank’s Place Polar Golf Outing. It started 10 years ago and the guys running Frank’s are still doing it.

The Spanish wine tasting two years ago was big. A gentleman from the embassy was to give a talk on a Friday. We had a capacity of 30 and on Wednesday had 12 people signed up. There were 36 by Friday. In the meantime, the Spanish guy told all these people to come down. It was supposed to start at 7:30 and everyone was speaking Spanish, some were on the list and some weren’t, and we ended up with about 50 to 55 people. I was really nervous, but they were all saying, “Relax, we’re Spanish, just take your time getting ready.” We finally got going at 9 PM and we all had a great time.

What’s the biggest single difference between running a bar in 1989 and now?

There is more competition, more places. The population is more diffused – we didn’t have Shunyi then – and a lot of the client base is out of the city. We knew everyone back then.

Besides John Bull Pub, what are you favorite bars and restaurants in Beijing?

Because of the traffic, I usually go to local restaurants, but I’m impressed with Hatsune (Japanese restaurant) and the Orchard. For a nice glass of wine, the Aria and the Press Club Bar in the St. Regis – I know the guys there, they’re nice people. But I really need to get out more.

What’s your cure for a hangover?

Drink Gatorade or Pocari Sweat and then go to the gym. It’s painful, but it works.

Final Sips

Time is running out for spending fantastic fall nights on a rooftop or deck. A few options: Big Easy (relaxing), Suzy Wong (people watching), Nuage (views of Hou Hai and the drum and bell towers) and Hai Bar (the same, but more rustic and cheaper). ~ Want to see the Astros win the World Series? Be a benchwarmer at the Goose and Duck or John Bull Pub. ~ Wine industry bigwigs constantly come to town since everyone wants a drop of China. I’m working on putting together wine tasting listings. ~ If you haven’t seen the Ah-Q Jazz Orchestra bring down the house at CD Jazz Café, catch their show on Thursday nights. Trombonist Matt Roberts, a former Dow Jones dude and now BlackInc China partner, says the house has been packed of late and he’s trying to figure out an encore. Ah-Q was playing at Ice House but the club, being a blues bar, wanted a, um, blues band, which makes you wonder why they hired a jazz one to begin with. ~ Steak & Eggs vegetarian omelet with hash browns and toast: RMB19. Get this and three other breakfast specials before 11 AM, or four RMB25 lunch specials, all October, as the place celebrates its anniversary. ~ Would Summergate wine please get a web page? You guys have some nice Antinori products, but make it too hard to find out about them. ~ The Starving Artists Party on September 15 at Yan Club was another finely-run event by that’s Beijing, which includes the restaurant awards at Bar Blu and bar awards at Zing. It helps to partner with ASC Fine Wines, who poured Chilean Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sculpting in Time, which provided the eats. Funnily enough, I ran into a pair of Italian journalists were had just arrived in Beijing that day. And where did they hear about the party? From a journalist in North Korea. ~ The next issue includes Marketing Beverages on the Great Wall, Beer Mania, Books: Those Things Made Out of Paper, $10,000 wine glasses, A Bar with an Identity Crisis, and more. ~ Build out community: If you know people who would like this newsletter, pass it on. They just need to send a message to me to get on the mailing list. ~ Again, your comments and questions are welcome. I do realize that this issue is nearly 3,000 words long. Believe me: my fingers barely have the strength to pick up the single shot of 10-year-old Balvenie Single Malt I allow myself each month. ~ Cheers.

Beijing Boyce I

This newsletter was originally mailed Thursday, October 6.

Welcome to the first issue of my yet-to-be-named e-newsletter. This one is strong on bar and restaurant write-ups and includes one very ironical “irony of ironies” story (see Fateful Day at First Café below) that shows Beijing isn’t quite as big as it seems. Comments, questions and constructive criticism (and potential names for this e-newsletter) are welcome and will be addressed in later issues.

Wining about Beijing

The annual Hilton wine fest a couple of weeks ago filled two floors of the hotel, with over 160 producers from Canada (How often is Canada listed first when it comes to wine? Go Canada!), Italy, Australia, the U.S., France, New Zealand, Chile, South Africa, Germany, Austria and other grape-growing nations. I tasted 52 wines – these were sips, not full glasses, my friends – along with the buffet, for a measly RMB250 (US$30).

I also looked like a total poseur by writing tasting notes on my little black pad – unfortunately I forgot my turtleneck sweater and Robert Parker book or I could have really stood out. But when you’re going through enough labels to make a deck of cards, you need a way to remember what was good, bad and ugly. It’s funny how my early notes use descriptions like “fruity,” “fresh,” “acidic” and “earthy,” while later ones are more, uh, creative: “hints of Sprite,” “honestly mundane,” “this grape’s got [sic] identity crisis” and “tastes like birch bark” (which I’m pretty sure I’ve never tasted). It’s also funny how you think a wine tastes like, say, birch bark, but then the distributor approaches and says it has “a delicate nose, a full body and a passionate finish” – and you suddenly realize it’s true! (And, in the case of this description, get turned on.) When the same expert points out the “notes of Saskatoon berries,” you swear you can taste them even if you’re never eaten, seen or heard of this fruit, or know where Saskatoon is (it’s in Canada, which at least in this inaugural newsletter, ranks first in wine. Go Grape White North!).

Thanks to Stefan Fleischer of Palette, who explained his company’s wines and had us taste each of them in the proper order. (Stefan is opening a coffee shop in the art district – Dashanzi – more details to come). Beijing’s other four leading distributors were also there – ASC Fine Wines, Montrose, Torres and Summergate. By the way, to those who know that my cell phone and I parted ways that night, it was not lost, I repeat, it was not lost. The phone was stolen. I clearly remember putting it down at 9:34 PM (26 minutes left to taste!) to exchange business cards and in minutes later it was, so to speak, Gone with the Wine. Be careful fellow tasters. Cell phones disappear as quickly as that last glass of Bollinger’s…

Holy crab cakes!

If I were a woman, I would marry a guy like Chef Dan Segall, who cooks up a storm at the Louisiana Restaurant – yes, the Hilton again – and is friendly as all get out. I was lucky enough to try Dan’s topnotch crab cakes, lamb chops, and pecan pie with ice cream, all courtesy of the hotel’s general manager, Vlad Reyes, who invited a bunch of us to dinner after we checked out the Hilton’s most excellent new executive suites. Note: Vlad is not only an entertaining dinner host, but also – little known fact – arranged several hundred marriage ceremonies while working in the hotel industry in the Maldives. So, if you ever need some last-minute vows…

This was my fourth superb dinner at the Louisiana and the place should be a nominee for that’s Beijing magazine’s annual restaurant awards. In any case, Dan, who hails from Massachusetts, deserves special credit for this last meal because, on that very day, his Boston Red Sox slipped behind the New York Yankees in the pennant race. Grace under pressure.

Sir Laugh-a-lot

Another guy making Beijing better is Rich Robinson, who for the love of humor organizes the Chopschticks comedy shows here and in Shanghai. Two hundred people came to the Ice House on September 17 to see John Bush and Tom Shillue, the two comedians Rich flew in from the U.S. (Tom managed to equate being denied sex by a particular sweetheart in high school with him carrying two increasingly swelling mailbags – with every letter in them being addressed to her and eager to be delivered.) Kudos to Rich and Cherry for making the project a success: check www.chopschticks.com for the next show.

To my horror and delight, Rich bought me a martini. Horror, as my last Ice House martini had “notes” of kerosene, and delight, since I rarely get free drinks and this one was good. Take it as a sign from Buddha that Ice House is poised to be, as many expect, a major player on Beijing’s high-end bar scene.

After the show, a few of us took John and Tom on a tour of some Beijing night spots. It’s hard to beat the spacious rooftop deck at Suzy Wong on a cool fall evening. Funnily enough, my colleague Lige arrived and remembered Tom from a show he did on 72nd Street in New York – five years ago. If that feat of memory wasn’t enough, she recalled three of his jokes, two of which he had told us at the show just a few hours earlier.

Fateful day at First Cafe

It is a sad day when your favorite pub is resigned to the empty bottle heap of history. I’m talking about a place where you hang out with homies, take friends visiting China, and hold birthday, going away and Thank Buddha It’s Friday parties; where you show up alone and usually meet somebody you know and, if not, chat up the soul on the next stool.

It’s bad enough when such a place is razed for a new, and about to look old in two years, apartment complex or shopping mall. It’s worse when things go awry due to clashing egos. The latter has happened at First Café with the departure of George and Echo, the place’s only two bartenders and arguably the city’s best. (Even my New York City-living, martini-loving friend Ro loves the drinks.) Let’s forget the dirty details about whether George and Echo were fired and forget that the bar has been neither demolished nor seen its door shuttered, the simple fact is that the place will never be the same for its most loyal patrons and some of the friends I have made there, including Oliver, Sherry, Joan, Kay or Janet. (This is even worse than when Buca Buca, which had the best martinis in Taipei, shut up shop.)

I’ve given out 120 First Café business cards and taken 50 friends, colleagues, clients and acquaintances there over the past year. It was a cozy spot with great ambience, a good clientele and, most importantly, bartenders who know their craft. At the same time, I and other patrons have told management many times to do something or lose their bartenders. “No one listens to people with curly hair,” as the old Chinese saying goes, and now we must wait, with great thirst, for George and Echo to pop up in a new locale. I met up with them shortly after the Fateful Day at First Café – it created a good excuse for us to sample three 12-year-old whiskies I brought back from vacation – and they have some new tricks up their sleeves to concoct even better martinis.

The big question now: Will First Café continue along the familiar path of many other small bar and restaurants? A cozy place opens and offers something unique in the way of drinks, food, ambience or service; it builds a cult following and those supporters bring their friends; it starts booming and everyone takes credit (the managers assume it’s their administrative genius; the bartenders or chefs their creations; the customers their gratis marketing); a key manager, bartender or chef leaves and quality slips; the place continues to boom for a few months on the momentum of pre-fallout days; then there is a drift to mediocrity and, often, closure. Time will tell, but just as an excellent martini has a last slip, so, too, do good bars come to an end.

[Ironies of ironies – when I arrived in the Bookworm tonight to send out this newsletter, who did I end up finding across from me but – Echo and George. Being the little eavesdropper I am, I heard them talking to an investor about the new bar they are opening in a few days – right in front of First Café. More on this later, but suffice to say I heard the phrase, “What’s the cheapest gin we can use?” Let’s give the benefit of the doubt to them for now.]

Special delivery

A colleague and I recently phoned in sandwich orders to Sequoia Café at lunch. Given the spotty delivery service in Beijing, I ended up calling the place a while later. I asked for the owner and said, “Hey, we ordered two sandwiches and…” Before I could finish, I felt him tense up on the phone with one of those “Uh oh, we forgot to deliver them” vibes. But all I wanted to tell him was that the sandwiches came faster than expected and were tasty as only bakery-fresh bread spread with creamery-fresh butter can be. Anyway, complaints are a dime a dozen in this town, so let’s give praise where it’s due. This incident shows it’s possible to quickly deliver good food in the CBD (Stone Boat, take note).

Beijing in brief

Beijing has started an etiquette program for taxi drivers and not a moment too soon. I’ve never been ripped off by a driver here, but have received a fair share of bad attitude. Most drivers are decent and it’s too bad they’re pulled down by a significant minority that desperately need some “thought reform” ~ By the way, the new and spacious taxis introduced during the past year are a godsend. Standing on the eleventh floor of my building and watching those two-toned vehicles – each painted in a primary color with a single gold stripe – zip by is like watching tropical fish in a tank. ~ To those who complain about getting horrible hangovers from five-dollar, all-you-can-drink bars, get real. What else do you expect from drinking the lowest-grade alcohol around? ~ The new Bookworm is open and with its 14,000+ books for loan, three spacious lounge areas, tasty sandwiches and wireless, it’s even better than before. ~ More on the Bookworm in the next issue as well as write-ups on the John Bull Pub tequila tasting, Beer Mania, Beijing holiday adventures, and Jim McGregor’s new book One Billion Customers. It’s getting a lot of press and McGregor will give talks both to AmCham-China (www.amcham-china.org.cn) and the Bookworm (www.beijingbookworm.com) on September 11. ~ JB.