- Opening Shots: Riverside Cafe, Le Quai, The Bookworm Torres Wines, and more
- First Impressions: American Café, Brewery Tap, Café Pause and Shin Yeh
- We Got Mail
- Parting Shots: New Year resolutions for bar managers and employees.
Riverside Café has closed and will, it appears, become another Schindler’s. Good news for sausage and sauerkraut lovers, bad news for fans of the café and its excellent RMB20 wine glasses. (I should have stocked up. Anyone know where I can get more?) ~ Black Jack Garden (where I once coaxed a bartender into making me a Jagermeister martini. Ah, the memories) has also been uprooted. ~ The back loft in Le Quai (inside Gongti West) is a great place to spend a few hours while watching people ice fish, skate and play hockey on the river outside. Cozy couches and a good selection of drinks (RMB25-50; try the fruit cocktail), the only drawback is that sound really carries from the room below. ~ Until Chinese New Year, Icehouse will only open for events, such as the Chopschticks comedy shows (next one: January 14). The owners have hired Guy Duarte as GM. The restaurant and lounge to which Icehouse is attached are open as usual. ~ It started with Babyface a year ago and now Gongti West is becoming club central. Angel, Cargo (backed by Mix), Queen Club and the soon-to-open Coco Banana (backed by Banana) and Cutie Club are like peas in the pod there, with Vics and Mix around the corner. That hundred-meter strip could become the world’s biggest market for Chivas and green tea. Good. We must isolate such drinkers from society at large. ~ That gargantuan, half-finished and long-dormant building behind the Sanlitun beer mug is now host to a flurry of construction, the attendant noise intruding upon The Bookworm. There could be a double whammy on book and wireless lovers when drilling starts on the huge nearby Sanlitun South project. The Bookworm has a growing collection of new books and magazines for sale, a jewelry corner by Things of The Jing and 2006 seminars planned with Kent Kedl (The China Ready Company), Tim Clissold (Mr. China) and “Maggot Detective” Mark Benecke (his slide shows are not for the weak of stomach), among others. ~ Jenny Lou’s continues to expand its empire with a takeover of Eight over Eight’s space (Sanlitun North). (Note: I went there and four other stores in a vain search for a plunger – the staff at each spot were amused as I used body language to demonstrate unblocking a toilet. I tell you, there’s nothing worse than having a dozen full-bladdered house guests waiting for the maintenance guy to come and fix the loo.) ~ Thanks to BB readers Ro King, Agent Hidden Dragon and Agent Gold Monkey for donating money to help fund a heart operation for a two-month-old orphan named Tian Yue. (See last issue for the Scrooge-like details as to why an extra drive for cash was needed.) GE also came through with major support. Tian Yue had surgery on Boxing Day and so far, so good. ~ Thanks also to my boss, who seemed to be the only laoban in Beijing who didn’t require the staff to wear Christmas hats – as was required by workers at Shin Yeh, Le Quai, Starbuck’s, ad infinitum – the past few weeks. (I simply don’t look good in red with white fringe.) ~ Torres Wine has moved its office to near Green T. House (I couldn’t find the actual address since, like that of Summergate Wines, the Torres website is not working. C’mon guys, it’s almost 2006!). Torres will have a free tasting every Friday, 4-6 PM and until the end of December (short notice!) offers “buy two, get one free” on Baron Philippe de Rothschild Maipo Cabernet Sauvignon (RMB67), Signos Shiraz (RMB55) and Prosecco Angela Viano (RMB 85). ~ I went to Pinnacle Plaza with friends to buy a Christmas tree and popped into Palette Wines (good deal on Stickleback: RMB85 per bottle) and then into Jenny Lou’s where, lo and behold, they had over 500 different wines and a wine tasting to boot (it consisted of a “blind tasting” where one guessed if the wine was a Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon. Okay, I guessed right. Now what? Do I win something? No? I don’t get the concept). ~ Finally, I was busy apartment hunting and moving the past two weeks, so this issue is heavy on First Impressions and light on in-depth pieces. I’ll have more next time around.
Light and airy, with pine furniture and a tile floor, the American Café is rumored to have Beijing’s best burgers. It’s decorated with posters and prints with, um, eclectic themes. One side has Toy Story and the Muppets, the back has the all-too-predictable James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley combo, while the front left has a black and white photo of Jackie Robinson stealing home during the 1955 World Series (nice!), among others. Anyway, the Boston burger (RMB40) came with fried mushrooms, cheese and bacon, plus tomato, onion, pickle and lettuce on a sesame bun. It was tasty, though the patty could have been firmer, and came with crispy fries seasoned with herbs. Said a dinner mate: “The Boston burger was quite satisfying in terms of size and flavor, even though (a) it appeared to have nothing to do with my hometown of Boston, and (b) had a little too much of that charcoal-grilled taste. That could be because I asked for it well done. Try it at 70 percent done (qi fen shou).” All in all, we were a satisfied crew and recommend giving the place a try.
Who would have thunk that a pub in an apartment complex (Blue Castle) could be so snug? This long and narrow place features two floors, with the upper level accessible by two staircases, and plenty of cubby holes for small groups of friends. There is a nice side room, though some among us found the wallpaper (yes, some places have moved beyond paint and cinder blocks) a bit psychedelic. “The bathroom shouldn’t be upstairs,” said one in our group. “The orange juice is good,” said another. “The upper level is faintly reminiscent of the Big Easy,” said a third. The staff could afford to be a bit more attentive (empty glasses over here!), though the French bartender is friendly. Wobbly chairs at the bar. Guinness and Kilkenny on tap. Free hot peanuts. If I lived nearby, Brewery Tap might become a favorite haunt.
Somewhere in Dashanzi, Café Pause has minimalist design in velvety auburn and moss green, with a stainless steel bar and dark chairs and tables (why does the décor remind me of Leiderhosen – perhaps it comes from the subconscious of the Austrian and German owner?). Creative and delicious tapas, including pork and spinach dumplings drizzled with red pesto sauce – my vote for snack of the year. A focus on German and Austrian wines, though they have others. The best gluvine (mulled wine) I’ve had in Beijing (a family recipe of Stefan Fleischer, a co-owner). Friendly and competent staff, a fun and diverse clientele, less-than-comfy chairs. The small and open layout works against a sense of intimacy and means that every entrance and exit lets in a gust of cold air, which can be a relief if a lot of people are smoking. Café Pause: it’s out in Dashanzi, but isn’t a good dumpling worth the trek?
MyTaiwanese friend Sherry, among the biggest food lovers around and a Taipei native to boot, raved about this place, so I dragged her along as a consultant. We started off with tasty stewed bamboo and pork with soy sauce, garlic and green onion, followed by sweet and sour breaded fish fillets (excellent: the best dish of the night). Rolling up our sleeves, we dug into steamed pork with salty egg (it’s potent, so best to have it with rice), an oyster pancake (the most recognizable Taiwanese dish, though the large globules of starch make it quite gluey), a wooden bucket of fried rice with peas, egg, onion and pork (enough to serve three to four) and three-cup mushrooms, which were pungent with heaps of basil and spicy with a generous helping of red peppers (I initially found the mushrooms too chewy, but they softened up and were quite addictive, though they brought no hallucinations). Last but not least were the deep-fried shrimp and taro rolls in flaky pastry. “These are very famous in southern Taiwan, though you rarely find them in the north,” said Sherry. They were a bit sweet for my liking and served as dessert, while she had a couple of “ma ji,” a Hakka treat that consists of warm and soft sticky rice coated in peanut powder (these usually come free back home, said Sherry. Shin Yeh charges RMB1 per piece). In addition to the food being excellent, the servers were spot on. As we finished one dish, another would appear, and we only had three items on the table at the end, even more impressive given that the place was busy. Shin Yeh is large, with a dining area split down the middle and private rooms, though it is drafty near the doors. The bathrooms are spotless and well-designed. Absolutely stuffed, and having finished a bottle of Qingdao (they don’t have Taiwan beer, among Asia’s best), we faced a very reasonable bill of RMB213. Good food, good service, good value.
Note: Shin Yeh does not serve stinky tofu – chodofu – nor does another nearby Taiwanese restaurant, Bellagio, despite this odorous food being among the Taiwan ’s most ubiquitous – well, at least in olfactory terms – and famous. Is this because the smell bothers customers? In any case, it’s a pity because a proper chodofu fits in with kimchi, sauerkraut and blue cheese in the family of smelly but tasty foods.
WE GOT MAIL
In response to last issue’s story on 5:19 bar, the establishment’s owner writes:
“Boyce, thanks for the mention in your last yet-to-be-named newsletter. I hadn’t thought of the 80s rec room analogy, but I like it. My only comment is that we have more wines than just the four Moldovan wines. Other than that, two of the draughts are now installed (Yanjing and Carlsberg) and we move the sofas when darts are played [I was the first to break the “dart board above the sofa” story. Dow Jones and WSJ, eat your hearts out.]” – D.M.
Note: Based on the author’s friendliness, I’m guessing he would be willing to stand by during dart games and yell things such as “one hundred and forrrrrrty!”, like they do on TV.
Resolutions for Beijing bar managers and employees (just trying to be helpful):
I shall not ask customers to pay for my mistakes, such as the difference between the RMB60 I have programmed into the cash register for a pint of Guinness and the RMB50 I’ve errantly printed on the menu; I shall accept the one-time loss of revenue rather than the permanent loss of the customer.
I shall not remove, nor lay hand upon, any glass containing more than a half-mouthful of liquid unless the patron whose glass it is has exited the premises or indicated that it be taken away; nor will I hover above said patron waiting for him/her to finish that final mouthful; if I do so because of a shortage of glasses, I will take measures to have more purchased.
I will not pick my nose or ears, scratch my armpits or nether regions, or engage in any other unseemly conduct before handling food; nor will I regurgitate phlegm and mull it in my mouth in front of customers.
I will not practice my Chinese / English / other language with customers who do not wish to do so (and will learn to recognize when they are doing so out of politeness), bore them with lengthy stories about a particular alcohol’s history, or make asides on what are obviously their private conversations.
[Specifically for managers] I will not chastise, denigrate or mock my employees in front of patrons as it makes me look unprofessional and my customers feel uncomfortable; I will defend those same employees from unreasonable and obnoxious patrons.
In coming issues: New Year resolutions for drinkers; The Pomegranate; ranking Beijing’s free English-language magazines; CD Jazz Café; the promise of Summergate Wines; the 400-kuai move; Dongbei dumplings; and more. Happy New Year and cheers everyone! Eat, drink and be merry – Beijing Boyce.