- Opening Shots, including The Big Easy, Berber N, and Mojito
- First Impressions: Rui Fu
- A Wine Glass of Any Other Shape
- Wine Notes
- Closing Shots, including Kitchen Confidential, Whisky and Bourbon Society, and a Big Thank You
China Daily reports that Louisiana-themed The Big Easy will be chai’d on Sunday. Chaoyang Park authorities voided the bar’s 13-year lease, signed in 1998, in order to make space for a “peace plaza,” although they didn’t reveal whether this will be a government or commercial venture, states the newspaper. The creative layout, spirited music and Bloody Marys of The Big Easy will be missed. / Before losing its trio of capable bartenders earlier this year, Midnight packed in partiers and pumped out 50-kuai cocktails. Now, a signboard out front advertises 10-kuai drinks, including — and some might prefer this one with two parame dics, stomach pump and stretcher — Gin and Coke. / Browns, bursting at the seams last Saturday night, smartly anchored an ice-filled claw-footed bathtub of bottled beer just inside the door and thus siphoned off some of the thirsty patrons teeming at the bar. (Suggestion: Sell bottled water from the tub, too.) / Berber N, home of tasty kebabs before construction forced its closure on Sanlitun North earlier this year, has reopened across from Tongli Studios. Never have skewered chicken butts been more savory. / The last time I saw words such as “closed for maintenance work,” they were plastered on the door at First Cafe, which shortly thereafter pounded into coaster-size bits. That is, until Tuesday — and I hope it is coincidence — when I spotted them in n eat longhand beside the entrance to Mojito, a fairly new place that has Beijing’s only draft Weihenstephaner. (Could a beer have a better name for the China market? The first half sounds delightfully Mandarin and the second evok es the Deutschland.) / Contrary to popular belief, Beijing does have table hockey, courtesy of W Sports Bar, where it is buried amid the ping pong table, dartboard, big-screen TV, pool table, art, grand piano, foosball table, etc. Is there anywher e else in town where you might simultaneously hear “Who’s serve?”, “bull’s eye!”, “I’ll have two beers, please”, “eight ball, corner pocket” and “this is simply too Dadaist for my taste,” all while someone chops out Mozart and a Formula 1 race shows? / Dee p in Sanlitun South, a new bar is opening on the second floor of the building that Beer Mania calls home. With W Sports Bar, Q Bar and Yes Club nearby, a new party zone seems to be forming. / Speaking of Q Bar: one crane, four hours, and a dozen people. Th at’s about what it took to get a five-meter tree and some stone flower beds atop this bar’s increasingly green sixth-floor deck a few weeks ago. Fortunately, should the day come, it will only take a few seconds to get them back down. / With its latest Chicago blues act having returned stateside, icehouse, the bar part of RBL, now features a mix of local and foreign talent in the form of the Rhythm Dogs (Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays). Meanwhile, the employee turnstile spins on as Ch ef Dan Segal, who joined RBL this year after working at the former Louisiana restaurant in the Hilton, has left for Hong Kong. / Stone Boat continues with its funky live music line-up. The next three Fridays feature Enfants Terribles (electro-jazz, August 11), Muwen (traditional instruments, August 18) and Hanggai (“Mongol roots,” August 25), while Panjir Trio plays Saturdays all month. / Speaking of which, shortly after announcing the readers’ choices for its recent bar and club awards, that’s Beijing (TBJ) published its “editor’s pick s.” Top spot of the year honors went to Stone Boat (good ambience and music, though the drinks and service are spotty), with honorable mentions to Area (was it on the ballot?) and Club Football (known primarily for its soccer pitches). Nothing against those places, but I don’t think collectively they had the impact of Browns. It exploded onto the bar scene this year, is busy beyond belief, appeals to most every age group, nationality and profession, influences and attracts as customers other bar owners and employees, offers decent food and a good draft beer selection, and, last but not least, won the readers’ vote. Love it or hate it, the place has made a mark. By the way, TBJ deserves kudos for organizing these awards. Cynics claim the magazine uses them to placate sponsors, but since each of the 20 categories has one winner and seven losers, more clients are likely to be upset than pleased. (And if you don’t believe it, then a band of TBJ staffers will roll up their gargantuan 250-page magazines and knock you about like a pinata. Or, maybe not.) / Fromage fans must be quick on the return key trigger when they get Beijing Cheese Society invites. Next week’s California-themed event at Palais sold out in a few hours. / Correction: Last issue, I wrote that 5:19 Bar and Grill was starting a darts league. In fact, it is one of the hosts of the Beijing International Darts League, which welcomes new teams and venues (email Chris “Elvis” Milward at commish @ beijing-darts.com).
FIRST IMPRESSIONS / RUI FU
I toiled beyond the borders of China during the heydays of Neo Lounge and Vogue, the venues that shot Henry Li to the top of the Beijing club-owner charts a few ye ars ago. Even so, I am intrigued by the history of those two places, about which so many friends rave ecstatic. I had high expectations for Li’s new club, Rui Fu. I wanted to like this joint, to understand the buzz created by my friends. And since it is na med after and based in the abode of an early twentieth-century Chinese leader, I envisioned a spacious place that welded the modern to the past, had layers of character and, given Li’s bar experience, served good drinks.
One thing is true: the club is spa cious. The ceilings are lofty, the lounge areas sprawling, the 1000 square meters ample. But any homage to the past is absent. Rui Fu is a virtual reality. It evokes the spirits of the plush karaoke, generic hotel casino, and modernized opium den, places w here losing track of time, forgetting the complexities of every day life, and finding indulgences are givens. The main floor is divided into two large narrow rooms joined by an opening. From the near side’s perspective, tables and chairs, then lounge areas, flow until they meet that opening, beyond which figures appear as silhouettes. A row of toffee-colored octopi-like “chandeliers” crowned with donut-shaped lights crawls spans the ceiling, framed by a strip of soft lights along the trim and a neon glow from the rafters. And a room-length curtain flows in front of what is mostly likely a wall, but could be a hiding spot for a Wizard of Oz type, calmly keeping the lights just dim enough, the house music just restrained enough, so that things stay on simmer. It all seems a bit unreal, as though pulling a lever might dissolve this scene. I’ll end my comments on ambience here, for my time at Rui Fu was short, my quota for being pretentious has been met, and a proper evaluation will require several return trips.
As for Rui Fu’s bar, it is L-shaped and seats about 15 people (fans of reddish velvet framed by white piping look will love the chairs). My only cocktail was, in theory, a vodka martini with a twist: the bartender inexplicably squeezed a lemon into the shaker with the alcohol rather than, as is proper, placing a strip of peel in the glass as a final touch. (*This* was the time for a lever that would make something, namely my drink, disappear.) It might be best to stick to wine, beer or spirits, which are reasonably priced (a serving of Johnnie Walker Black is Y35).
Rui Fu, still to have its official opening, will rank among the year’s top bar stories, one with a high-falutin’ plot if the free English magazines are any indicator (that’s Beijing got in the first “see and be seen” reference, while Timeout used “glitterati” and expressed seeming displeasure that “some guests [at the soft launch] obviously missed the whole point of Rui Fu as they slobbed around in jeans, trainers and t-shirts, not quite reflecting the A-list celebrity hang out that Lee has envisaged”). Throw in the general consensus that serious guanxi is behind the club, that Henry Li is a brand name in and of himself, and that plenty of old-time party-goers will be looking to re-live the days of Vogue and Neo Lounge, and it’s going to get interesting.
A GLASS OF ANY OTHER SHAPE
My body has filtered its fair share of wine during the past decade, but it was only a few weeks ago at The Bookworm that I finally attended a Riedel tasting. Riedel is an Austrian company that makes expensive machine- and hand-made crystal wine glasses in dozens of shapes, each one designed for a particular grape variety. The glass for Merlot is different than the glass for Bordeaux, and so on. The idea is that the shape and volume of the glass determines how wine is aerated and where it falls on the tongue, and thus significantly influences how we smell and taste it.
A dozen of us began with a Chardonnay served, as you might guess, in a Riedel Chardonnay glass. A few sniffs and sips later, we poured the wine into one of those small glasses commonly used by restaurants and bars. The effect was striking. The bouquet seemed much weaker and the taste sour, as the smaller glass’ shape directed the wine aw ay from the tip of our tongues, where our sense of sweetness lies. But what if rather than that obviously sub-par small glass we had used a different Riedel one? After trying the Sauvignon Blanc in its special vessel, we did just that, pouring the wine into the now-empty Chardonnay glass. The effect on the bouquet and taste was still evident, though less pronounced. We rounded out our testing with a Pinot Noir and a Cabernet Sauvignon.
I asked if budget-minded souls could get these results by using a cheap glass with a shape similar to that of the Riedel. The answer was that crystal: 1) makes it easier to check wine clarity and; 2) allows for more aeration, as under a microscope it is rougher than glass. What can I say? No one had a microscope handy. In the end, the tasting was both an education of the senses and sheer marketing genius, for we had plunked down RMB250 each for what was partly a sales pitch. While Riedel is nice, I’m sticking for now with the RMB20 wine glasses I bought at the former Riverside Cafe — they are cheap and big, and since my friends tend to break stuff after a few bottles of wine, I’d hate to have that rough crystal scratching my linoleum floor. For those who do wish to indulge, Riedel is distributed exclusively in China by ASC.
WINING ABOUT BEIJING
Moet Hennessy Diageo (MHD) provides Veuve Cliquot and Moet Chandon to our fair city, and, as I discovered at a Beijing This Month party last week, a n assortment of other wines, including Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc (New Zealand), Cape Mentelle Sauvignon Semillon and Green Point Victoria Shiraz (Australia), Terrazas Reserva Malbec (Argentina), and Casa Lapostolle Cuvee Alexandre Chardonnay and Merlot (Chile). / Speaking of distribution, reader C.J. Dukes took me to Jiu Fu Sheng Ming Wine Shop (8779-6202), a spacious and well-stocked wine and spirits outlet complete with flagstones, seating, and fish tank. Owner John Zhang is transforming the space next door into a wine haven that will include a tasting area, small stage, and plenty of retail space. (I picked up a bottle of Wild Turkey and it passed my “didn’t freeze solid overnight in the freezer” test.) / Stefan Fleischer says the new kitchen at Palette Vino in Shunyi will operate from 5 to 10 PM and serve antipasti, cold cuts, freshly made pasta, cheese, and grilled meats and tuna. / Upcoming events at ASC Fine Wines include a New World and Old World tasting at The Bookworm (August 17, 7-8:30 PM, RMB250), a Gold Label cigar dinner at Garden of Delights (August 25, 7 PM, Y688, includes one cigar, Wolf Blass wines), a Trimbach winemaker dinner at The Capital Club (September 2, 7 PM, Y688) and a Banfi dinner at The St. Regis (September 9, 7 PM, Y788). / ASC has partnered with the UK-based Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) to provide classes in China. The “foundation” course is for beginners, in English, and focused on wine styles, service, and food-pairing techniques (September 28-31, 7-9 PM nightly, exam September 6, Y1488). / On August 26, China World Hotel’s Aria will pair a six-course meal by Chef Andrew McKee with seven wines that rate 95 or higher in Wine Spectator. Forget that Boracay trip fund: this dinner is Y3888. The wines (points in brackets): Krug Grande Reserve Champagne (95), 2002 Leeuwin Estate Chardonnay (96), 1996 Faiveley Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru (96), 1990 Gaja Barbaresco (100 points), 1983 Chateau Margaux (96 points), 1988 Chateau Latour (96 points) and 1998 Chateau D’yquem (95 points). / Jebsen is giving a “wine and picnic backpack” to customers that purchase a case of the company’s Chiaro wine. The backpack holds two bottles of wine (not included) and comes with plastic cups, utensils and plates.
In the summer reading section last issue, I should have included Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, which looks at the restaurant business in general and the author’s transformation from oyster-eating youngster to drug-abusing kitchen grunt to increasingly respectable New York chef in particular. The most useful excerpt concerns a couple known for throwing excellent dinner parties and encouraged by friends into opening a restaurant, only to realize that people are far more likely to show up when the food is free. There is a lesson o r two here for prospective bar owners. / I’ll also recommend two websites. The first is news.imagethief.com, created by “an American spin doctor in Beijing” who provides insights into both the PR field and life in the Middle Kingdom. (His “How to Survive a Chinese Drinking Party” is a modern-day “Art of War” for those battling a night of baijiu.) The second is danwei.org, which tracks “media, advertising and urban life” in China, and is run by the brains behind the sexy Centro ad campaign. / I’m not a big fan of bartenders doing fancy tricks with bottles, but this guy, apparently at Beijing’s Salsa Caribe, is impressive: www.youtube.com/watch?v=agRiiO6-Po0. / To those who have patiently been waiting for my Whisky and Bour bon Society, I will send out a survey by Monday to find out where, when and how often you would like to meet. If you are interested in the society but do not receive the survey, please let me know. (Note: I’ve contacted several distilleries about this project and will provide an update next issue.) / My goal when starting this newsletter last October was 500 readers. On Wednesday, thanks to Adam D. signing up, I reached it. Who are your fellow readers? There are 130 people working in hotels, restaurants, bars, or wine and spirits companies, 80 in the local and foreign media, and 290 that hold jobs ranging from diplomat to homemaker to English teacher to businessperson. I owe many thanks to those readers who have passed on this newsletter to their friends and acquaintances over the past ten months. I’ll be back next issue with reviews of Face (first impressions are good) and A Che (a Cuba-inspired spot), and notes on pairing Chinese food and wine. Until then, eat, drink and be merry. Cheers, BB.