Welcome to issue four. This one features:
- Pavilion: Random thoughts on Beijing’s newest bar
- Live from New York: The Cheese Vixen
- Clash of the cabs: Phelps vs. Shafer
- Tying one on at Taillan winery
- Suzy Wong: Serving a niche market
- The steady slide of Sanlitun
- Bubbling over at the Peninsula
- The Battle of Sanlitun III
- Final sips
As always, comments are most welcome.
Pavilion – Random thoughts on Beijing’s newest bar
The Pavilion raucously opened last night and since I’m rushing to send out this newsletter I’ll just string together a few thoughts about this place on its first night: well-lit Taco Bell-style exterior, big comfy leather seats, Guinness on tap, no foot rail at the bar (I repeat, NO FOOT RAIL AT THE BAR), lovely glass-walled wine room, Bloody Mary: RMB55, music ranging from piped in Elvis Costello, Crowded House, Queen and the Cheers theme to a band playing ABBA, Donna Summer, Tina Turner and Joan Jett (yes, Joan Jett. Excellent), lots of older white guys and younger Chinese women, lots of flat panel (but no obtrusive) TVs, a bathroom stall door that’s going to end up whacking patrons in the ass at the urinals, friendly and competent staff, nice view of the woods out back, lots of great nooks and crannies in which to hang out, reminds me of a cross between the old Maggies, Aria and W Sports and Music Bar and Restaurant, if you can get your mind around that. I no longer can so I’ll end it there. Check it out – right across from Babyface – and let me know what you think.
Live from New York: The Cheese Vixen Sharon Ruwart, co-founder (with Perri Dong) of the Beijing Cheese Society and popularly known about town as The Cheese Vixen, brought a full load of fromage from New York to the latest BCS event, November 14 at Icehouse. While in the Big Apple, Sharon visited Artisanal which, she writes, “[is] not only a wonderful cheese-focused restaurant… but also boasts the only cheese-maturing ‘cave’ in the United States.” Sharon picked up five cheeses for our tasting pleasure. She also gave us a quiz, in which we learned, among other things, that a woman in Wisconsin wore a “cheese bra” to a sporting match. (“I bet it was made from Swiss cheese,” quipped the woman beside me) In any case, here are the cheeses, in tasting order, with excerpts from her handout and some notes of my own.
Azaitao, Farmstead, Portugal: “Coagulated with thistle rennet… the interior should be smooth and almost runny at room temperature… Raw milk, aged 90 days.” Yep, it was smooth and almost runny. Being a people person, I asked my table mates – Lisa, Yuntao, Mike and Toni – to rank each cheese from a low of 1 to a high of 10. (We were like a little cheese society within a Big Cheese Society.) We gave the Azaitao a 6.75.
Bouc Emissaire, Chaput Dairy, Quebec: “You’re got to love a cheese called ‘the scapegoat’… creamy, buttery… Raw milk, aged 60 days.” “Smells like ammonia,” said Mike, and I had to agree. Plus, I thought this one was more chalky than buttery. We gave it a 7.1. The Bouc-E was great with the Chardonnay (see the wine list below), but gross with the Merlot-Cabernet.
Constant Bliss, Jasper Hill Farms, Vermont: “[Made from] uncooled evening milk… The cheese ripens from the outside in, going from a bone-white to an ivory color as the cheese ripens and softens. The cheese is named after a Vermont settler killed by local natives in 1718 when guarding a local military road. Raw milk, aged 60 days.” All I can say is that Bliss got a bum deal with this tribute: salty attack, gluey finish, 5.75.
Gruyere, Farmstead, Switzerland: “Hand-selected by a Swiss farmer named Rolf (cue Sound of Music)… firm but supple texture [the cheese, not Rolf] and complex taste.” Sharon got tricky, putting this side-by-side with a Gruyere from Jenny Lou’s. We hemmed and hawed about which tasted best, which shows how much we know. And somehow our scoring system fell apart, but it didn’t matter because the king cheese was up next. Ladies and gentleman, presenting:
Shropshire Blue, Colston Bassett Dairy, England: “We picked this because a cheese plate should always have a blue, and because with its deep orange color it’s gorgeous… It’s a modern cheese, invented in the 1980s [the decade that gave us Duran Duran, the Breakfast Club and the BBO – “bottom bottle opener” – which was, as should be evident, a groove in the glass of the bottle’s bottom that could be used to open your next brew. Pure genius! Pure 80s! But I digress]… meaty and tangy. Pasteurized cow’s milk. Aged 90 days.” This crumbly cheese was, as Sharon put it, “gorgeous.” And according to my notes, “It started off with a tangy cheddar taste that quickly morphed into a blast of dirty diaper-stoked stinkitude.” I had three helpings. Score: 9.5.
The three wines for the night came from ASC, with the able Karen Nelson on hand and the Icehouse staff keeping the vino flowing. The wines were: Santa Rita Reserva Chardonnay (Chile) 2004 (128RMB), Columbia Crest Two Vines Merlot-Cabernet (Washington State) 2001 (151RMB) and Taylor’s Special Ruby Port (Portugal) (192RMB). Special thanks were given to Jackie Connar for helping with admin and to Susie Jakes and Jeff Prescott for bringing the bread. Sharon is on the lookout for “mules” to hand carry cheese into China, so if you’re interested, send an email to email@example.com. (There, I wrote that whole story without a single “who cut the cheese” or “who moved my cheese” crack.)
Clash of the Cabs: Shafer vs. Phelps It was drink, eat, drink, eat, drink eat, etc. and be merry at the Shafer and Joseph Phelps wine dinner, held by ASC Fine Wines at Aria on November 10. I know little about wine, other than being able to visually discern between red, white and rose, but here’s my two renminbi.
We started with Bollinger Special Cuvee Champagne, followed by Phelps’ Los Carneros Chardonnay 2002, which Doug Shafer, president of the winery and in attendance, called “big, fat and rich” (which isn’t an uncommon way to describe wine: try plugging those words in to Yahoo.) This was followed by a Shafer Merlot 2002, which Doug described as “yummy” and a “pretty rich full wine that reflects the weather [where the grapes were grown].” This did have a nice nose and with two solid wines and some Champers under out belts, we were ready to trek into the sacred land of California’s top “cabs,” as some like to call Cabernet Sauvignons.
We next tasted, side by side, Phelps Insignia Napa Valley 1997 and 2001. In my notes I scribbled “vigorous, solid, full-bodied – Halle Berry in a tasteful black cocktail dress” and “this is a killer – Campbell Thompson.” Campbell works at ASC and was sitting beside me, thought I can’t guarantee that he actually said those words. (By the way, does he not have a name that deserves a royal title, such as Sir Campbell Thompson or The Right Honorable Campbell Thompson or Campbell Thompson, Earl of ASC? I’m telling you, there’s nobility just waiting to happen there.)
But if Campbell didn’t say it; I will: This wine is a killer. It was beautiful, with a nose that made you want to squeeze your head into the glass. It made the 2001 which came after it and which in other circumstances would probably have been the star seem like a slightly unready debutante (could I sound any more pompous?). Next up and, again, side by side were the Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon 1997 and 2001. These wines, highly regarded by experts, seemed to be a bit of a letdown after the Phelps Insignia. An attendee astutely asked, “Were the Shafer wines disadvantaged being served with the steak course rather than the cheese course?” They were and it’s too bad, but I guess two slabs of meat weren’t in order. Around that time, according to my notes, Doug uttered the words “I’m a big ass Cabernet and I’m here to see you,” but I have no idea of the context. Anyway, we finished off with a Joseph Phelps Late Harvest Riesling 1993 (which I can sum up in one word – sweet) and I then bucked down two glasses of Bollinger for good measure.
As for the dinner, it was good, although it required some dictionary research (remoulade: a piquant cold sauce made with mayonnaise, chopped pickles, capers, anchovies, and herbs; quince: the fruit of a central Asian tree of the rose family that resembles a hard-fleshed yellow apple and is used esp. in preserves; and so on).
This wine dinner cost RMB988 and was excellent value, with a good combination of food, drink and interesting patrons. For number crunchers, just consider that a bottle of Shafer Hillside would set you back at least USD350 (www.winesearcher.com – thanks to Campbell for the site reference). For all others, consider that man cannot live on Taillan Malbec alone. Speaking of which…
Tying one on at Taillan
When it comes to China, some people like to whine while other simply like to wine. A dozen of the latter got together on November 5 for a trip to the Taillan winery, about 30 kilometers southwest of Beijing. The trip was arranged by the American Community Club and led by John Bull Pub owner Frank Siegel and ACC After Hours Committee member Shauna Cheng. After a leisurely drive to the winery, we received a tour of the vineyards by general manager Alain Lecroux, who has been with the Taillan winery, a Sino-French venture, since its startup nine years ago. Alain, who hails from Brittany, said the vines were imported, with 100,000 of them coming in 1997. (Wine whiz and tour attendee Andrew McDonald notes that the vines are grafted onto North American rootstalks, which costs more money but protects them from phylloxera bugs. That’s some forward thinking by Taillan.)
Alain noted the difficulty of producing wine in China. “At the beginning, French people thought it would be an easy market, but no.” Then we headed inside and learned that the vats can store up to 100,000 bottles of wine and that the facility can process 30,000 bottles per hour (and often does bottling for other companies).
Our little group could never handle 30,000 bottles per hour, but we were ready to try. After Frank unpacked a picnic lunch of cold cuts, cheese, breads and potato salad, Alain cracked the first of six wines. The important thing, he stressed, was not how well Taillan wines stacked up against the competition, but that they are “drinkable.” He got no argument from us. Over a couple of hours, we tried the 2000 Chardonnay (“Apples and pears,” says Alain), Rose 2003 (went down as quick as draft beer); 2003 Malbec (“This one’s my favorite,” says Alain. Me, too; it had a “happy smell,” whatever that means), Merlot (drinkable-plus), Pinot Noir 2001 (drinkable), and Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 (“it was a bit too peppery, although at this point, I think my taste buds might have been upset by the potato salad, which had a creamy nose, hints of mayonnaise and a smooth finish).” At some point, Alain said, “this wine reminds me of dry grass, two days after it’s been cut,” but as is usual with my notes, I have no idea of the context. In the end, I bought eight bottles of Malbec, four of Pinot Noir, and one each of Cognac and Armagnac. That seems to total 14, but for some reason when we got off the bus in Beijing, I only had seven left and my wine-opening hand had cramps. Odd. In any case, home delivery of these wines is available in Beijing. To order or for more info: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Suzy Wong – Serving a niche market If every bar has its unique clientele, then Suzy Wong’s is horny people, aged 25 to 45, who enjoy 10-minute techno versions of Irene Cara’s What a Feeling, followed by a similar opus based loosely on Duran Duran’s Wild Boys. To each his/her/its own, I guess. The meat market doesn’t truly get started until about 11 PM. Those who dislike feeling like a lightly seasoned lamb chop in a butcher shop window, make arrangements to be elsewhere at that time. But it was enjoyable to be the only soul on the deck two Saturday nights back. I spent a good hour enjoying solitude in that crisp fall air. Ah, to have space in Beijing…
The steady slide of Sanlitun Is it me or is Beijing nightlife becoming rougher? Sanlitun North Street in particular, seems to be turning into a highway to hell. Substance-selling “brothers,” physically aggressive beggars, “lady bar” touts and out-of-control imbibers are proliferating. Add to this mix growing nationalism and cases of security guards/bouncers beating patrons ten times worse than could possibly be justified. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: “Sanlitun North Street, an even bigger disaster waiting to happen.”
Bubbling over at the Peninsula The drinks were effervescent, the surroundings presidential, the people memorable, as Peninsula Palace hotel held a Champagne tasting on November 8. “Effervescence” refers, of course, to the Moet Chandon. The evening started with a glass of Brut Imperial NV. Then, Moet & Chandon Sommelier Christophe Vincent, visiting Beijing, officially launched the new vintages: Millesime 1999 and Millesime 1999 Rose. The two were launched in Hong Kong the weekend before, but this was the first time they had been served elsewhere in Mainland China. “Presidential” refers to the 600 square meter suite of the same name, which includes a dining room, kitchen, sauna and gym, all for a paltry US$4500 per night. As for “memorable,” it refers to a certain flashback precipitated by a certain someone at the party who was remembered from slightly less posh surroundings six years ago. Asia is a small place.
The Battle of Sanlitun III I made my first visit – post-breakup era – to First Café and Midnight. For those who don’t know the story (and Buddha knows most people on this list are sick of it), First Café once offered an unbeatable combination of cozy ambience, superb cocktails and interesting clientele. Then two months ago, the owner Keiko and the only two bartenders, George and Echo, fell out. About a month later, George and Echo, believing droves of customers would remain loyal to them, opened a bar – Midnight – less
than a meter in front of First Café.
I’ve walked by these bars dozens of times during the past month on my way to and from the Bookworm. Based on window gazing, First Café has been doing fine, but patrons at Midnight are few and far between. However, such observations do not research make. So, in the interests of accuracy, I embarked on a two-night project with a comrade, known only as Agent Red Wolf.
Night 1 (Friday): We slid into First Café around, of all ironic times, midnight. Red Wolf made a surreptitious visit next door to the bar of same name and learned that it was nearly empty. Meanwhile, First Café was bursting at the seams with over 30 guests. Spirits were high and spirits were flowing, the service was passable, and business seems to have gone unabated at First Café.
Night 2 (Saturday): We popped into Midnight around 1 AM. Again, Agent Red Wolf again went on the prowl and soon reported that First Café was quite busy, while there were but four patrons – including us – in Midnight. The martinis were excellent and we got to try George and Echo’s coffee vodka, but unfortunately the ambiance was wanting.
Just to ensure the accuracy of my observations even further, I made a few more trips back. First Café continues to do well, while Midnight has quickly been picking up steam, no doubt fuelled by ample coverage in the free English-language magazines. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens but given the dearth of decent bars in Beijing, both places may end up doing pretty well.
Final sips The Bookworm is holding “A Giant Book Sale” on Sunday, November 20 from 10 AM to noon to raise money for earthquake victims in Pakistan. The event is sponsored by Beijing International Peace Vigil Group and proceeds go to the Red Cross. See www.beijingbookworm.com for a map. ~ Chopschticks next comedy show is at Icehouse on November 19 at 7:30 PM. For tickets: 13701210489 / Tickets@TheComedyTour.com ~ Sequoia Cafe is holding “Bordeaux: An Introduction,” with Sommelier Raphael Sarri, at 7:30 PM on November 19. The event includes one white and five red wines. RMB190. There is limited seating, so email email@example.com or call 13301377336 to reserve a spot. ~ If that’s not enough Bordeaux for you, ASC Fine Wines will hold “128 Great Years of Bordeaux,” an eight-course wine dinner at China World Hotel on November 26. RMB1388 net ~ In honor of the Beijing visit of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (he said he’d be back), Montrose has reopened its Kerry Center wine store (they said it’d be back, too) with a special on Californian wines. They’ve gone all-out with a poster that gives Arnold an ungodly aura and makes him look like a cult leader. How Californian. Montrose’s Ethan Perk writes that the Kerry Centre shop will have a half-price sale on selected wines and spirits, December 1-3. ~ I’m soon to be homeless and am looking for new quarters. I’m currently in Sun City, right behind Morels, and am looking for something in that area. If you know of a good spot, let me know (no agents please, I’ve already got one). ~ Nearly 30 people nestled into the second floor of John Bull Pub on November 12 for a Spanish cheese and wine tasting. The cheese was hand-carried in from Spain and matched up with five wines, also hailing from the land of the bullfight. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet got a list of the cheeses and wines so I’ll have to get back to you on this one ~ That’s Beijing Big Wigs Mike and Toni came over with all the fixings for Cape Cods two weeks back. Vodka, cranberry juice and grapefruit juice – that’s Mike’s mad mix. They keep things nice and simple there in Boston ~ The December issue of Food and Wine magazine lists the top ten vineyards in the world. Lo and behold, among them was Seven Springs Vineyard, the winery owned by the family of my co-worker Andrew MacDonald, in Oregon. (I wasn’t aware that state had been settled yet.) Congratulations Andrew. When’s the tour? ~ Cheers.