BB XXVIII: Opening Shots

Capone’s Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar held its soft opening last Friday. According to the invite, the place is “inspired by the Chicago lifestyle in the 1920s,” suggesting we might see unruly customers gunned down in plain sight while bobbed-haired flappers shimmy and tweed-jacketed gents get inebriated on bathtub gin (mixed with green tea for that Beijing touch). In addition to offering “signature dishes,” “a comfortable collection of wines” and “dreamy jazz,” Capone’s “aim’s [sic] to serve the customers with all the hearts.” I’m not sure if the place needs a coroner or a copywriter. Capone’s is in The Place, that fancy new shopping area just east of Ritan Park. / 5:19 Bar and Grill, which ranks among the brighter spots on the bleak “Super Bar Street,” marked its first anniversary. Owner Dave says he plans to air classic holiday movies starting at midnight on Christmas Eve. / Paul P informs that Mojito has re-opened. It looked like a goner when that “closed for renovations” sign lasted more than a month. / Q Bar is featuring “Santa’s Little Helper” during December. This hot drink (30 kuai) includes melted dark chocolate, a sprig of mint, and a choice of Kahlua, Amaretto or Grand Marnier (see Timeout for recipe). Don’t expect to sleep within three hours of drinking one. / Good reviews are flooding in for the food at Tim’s Texan BBQ (formerly John Bull Pub), which still features Mexican fare on Fridays, though during the winter the chefs will whip up those Taco El Pastors in the kitchen rather than out front.

The Dinner and the Door

I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been at a wine dinner where a patron has destroyed a door. I can now raise one more finger after attending the Billy Kawaja Wine Dinner at The Park Grill (top floor of TRIO) last Saturday night. Kawaja is the chef at the Canadian Embassy and he teamed up with The Right Honorable Campbell Thompson of ASC Fine Wines and the staff at The Park Grill to put this dinner together. (Thanks to TRIO marketer Nicole Pang, who will soon leave Beijing, and all-around party animal e-Von for the invites. And yes, for the cynics out there, I did pay the 750-kuai fee.) Here are the course-by-course details and the fate of The Door:

(1)
We started with Champagne Laurent-Perrier matched against oysters with tomato juice and a touch of vodka. His Lordship Thompson explained that this Champagne has more Chardonnay than most and is “creamy and fine.” It also has a LOT of bubbles.

The door: Still on its hinges

(2)
The Dinner: We sat down and found our mostly Canuck table between those of the Aussies and the Kiwis, who cheer their wines as if they were rugby teams, and thus need a buffer. The first wine, the Knappstein Riesling 2005 (Australia), had hints of Scope and citrus fruits. Paired with grilled prawn on fava beans, with ravioli and a light curry sauce, this wine had an “acid finish that allows it to balance with the creaminess of the food,” said Sir Thompson. He added that Knappstein was “regarded as one of the best Rieslings in Australia.” Well, that was Riesling enough to drink it, ha ha ha ha…

The Door: As I babbled with my five tablemates, four of whom I was meeting for the first time, little did I know that one was a ticking time bomb that would soon go off.

(3)
The Dinner: Next up was the imposingly named Feudi di San Gregorio Greco di Tufo 2004 (Italy). It had a creamy, fresh nose with scents of butter, apples and peaches. This was a light wine and matched nicely with the halibut. As Chef Kawaja later explained, “I wanted to try something new and did smoked halibut, rather than smoked salmon.” I liked him because he didn’t go for the easy “I served this fish just for the halibut/hell of it” joke.

The Door: As I sipped my wine, I thought I saw a crazed glimmer in the eye of the patron opposite me. I attributed it to the light reflecting off either the silverware or that slick prawn shell. If only I had paid more attention. Instead, I sat there and wondered if TP, at the next table and ubiquitous on the bar scene the past few months, ever sleeps. Yes, I decided, but only during days and only in a narrow wooden box (100 percent French oak, of course, and stocked with a couple of good bottles of Bordeaux).

(4)
Next was a double serving of quail. I have to admit that tiny bird breast looked forlorn and I felt as though I were tearing into Huey, Dewey or Louie (whichever was least plump). The Montana Marlborough Pinot Noir 2005 (New Zealand) was ripe and spicy, and smelled of cherries.

The Door: The patron opposite, who was at that point merely in the “pleasant human” category, but about to leapfrog to the “cold-blooded door killer” file and take on the name Ray-Chill, headed for the toilet. A normal ritual, one might think, unless…

(5)
Next up was roasted venison loin on crisp sweetbread and paired with Vina Aquitania “Lazuli” Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 (Chile), which had a rich and powerful nose. We hardly had time to experience this wine, as…

The Door: Suddenly a ripple went through the room. An image of terrified forest animals racing ahead of a ferocious fire swept through my mind. A moment later, Ray-Chill sat down. It dawned on us that she had just destroyed the toilet door. How did we know? “I just destroyed the door to the toilet,” she said. Apparently, in a moment of fury, she went on a rampage, much as an enraged polar bear smashes through an igloo and gobbles up Eskimos like pies. Except the igloo was The Park Grill and the bathroom door was… well, anyway… she knocked the thing off its hinges like Godzilla smashing through a skyscraper. Then, we heard a dull metal clang. “I dropped my fork,” said DC nervously, sitting beside Ray-Chill her and obviously terrified of being the next victim.

(6)
We stuck with the Cabernet Sauvignon as we moved on to the whipped goat’s cheese, salty beet chips and watercress salad. It was a nice combination of savory and pungent flavors, but I personally found this dish offensive. I mean, isn’t it a bit much to whip goats?

The Door:
“What do mean ‘destroyed’?” I asked Ray-Chill, looking down for fear that eye-to-eye contact might inspire more carnage.
There was no hardware left,” she answered.
“No hardware!” we all hoarsely whispered. Our eyes widened in terror as we realized that this seemingly normal human could transform into the equivalent of an enraged polar bear smashing through an igloo and gobbling up Eskimos like pies. Wait, I already wrote that. In any case, I chastised myself for carelessly leaving my tranquilizer gun at home and decided the best strategy now was keeping the beast at bay by keeping it busy.
“Well, now, that’s very interesting. Kind of a hobby, I guess. Uh, how many doors have you destroyed in your life?”
“Zero”
“Zero. Is that so?”
“Yes”
So, you, uh, only destroy windows?
“That’s not what I meant!”
“Really, it’s okay, it’s more than okay, they’re cheaper to fix.”
“I don’t destroy windows!”
“Waiter! Tranquilizer gun!”
DC chimed in and claimed a good name for her crime would be “de-port-ication.” Yes DC, we still know you are there. Eat your beet chips!

(7)
The last wine was a Kracher Cuvee Beerenausalee 2005 (Austria). Here’s a one-word review: sweet. The Rightable Honor Campson Thompbell said, “This wine, if you could call it that, is 110% sugar. I wouldn’t even recommend it to a polar bear, crazed or not. You’re better off pouring it on pancakes.” Actually, he made some pithy remarks, but I missed them, for I was deep in thought.

The Door: As I felt the Kracher raise my blood sugar level to record highs, I wondered what fate held for Ray-Chill. Destroying doors is not exactly the most diverse skill set in the world. Nor, do I imagine, is there much demand for it. Then, it hit me. I had been a fool and had missed the forest for the trees, or at least the house for the door. This was not about destruction; it was about creation. It was not about pulverizing things; it was about unifying them. This was about removing something that not only keeps toilets and dining rooms, but also people, apart – doors. With this realization, I now interpreted that glimmer in the eye of Ray-Chill as one not of wildness, but of wisdom, and realized that while we had been seeking to decipher the wine, she had been giving us coded messages about the meaning of life. Indeed, if only we could look at the barriers we erect and dismantle them one by one, then, someday, we might also say, “There was no hardware left.” Cheers, Ray-Chill, cheers!

Note: Ray-Chill provided “go for it” permission for writing this story (for the record, she does fit in the “pleasant human” category and apparently destroyed the door simply by opening it). No polar bears or Eskimos (“Inuit” as they are properly known in Canada) were injured. DC got a new fork. Campbell retained his titles. Billy escaped the kitchen and got to use the (open-air) toilet. A good time was had by all.

(From Beijing Boyce XXVII, first emailed on November 23, 2006)

Tales of the Plush Monkey

Warning: The following story contains disturbing scenes involving a plush monkey and is not suitable for those under the age of 21, allergic to polyester or prone to taking life too seriously. Most of the characters are real, thus their resemblance to actual persons is pretty much to be expected, isn’t it?

He’s five inches tall, full of plastic beans and sports a coat of recycled fibers. He’s the definition of mystery with his Men-in-Black coloring and Mona Lisa-like expression. He’s irresistible to adults, children and zookeepers of all ages, likes to play with his banana and knows how to swing. Meet Zimbu, the plush Beanie Baby monkey with a difference (http://www.beijingboyce.com/zimbu/).

Consider a recent Halloween party: an irate patron struts behind a nightclub, screaming in Mandarin for ten minutes and insulting the mothers of the planet. From the safety of a second-floor balcony, Zimbu hangs over the precipice, at arm’s length, and the order “Quiet!” rings out. Below, the man wobbles, looks up and directs his fury at no person, but at Zimbu, challenging a plush monkey – yes, a plush monkey! – to fight. Suffice it to say, half-pound Zimbu doesn’t stand much chance against a 170-pound human, even a drunken one, but that’s hardly the point. What matters is that Zimbu commands attention. In fact, over the recent Halloween weekend, he received drinks from bar-goers, untold kisses from females and numerous handshakes from males. Here is a recap of five Halloween parties, each one with a “Zimbu moment.”*

The party: that’s Beijing’s bash at Rui Fu

The Crow and I arrived at Rui Fu on Friday at the witching hour of Midnight. This place has a Halloween feel even on a regular night due to the monolithic abandoned residence (haunted house?) out back, the octopi-like chandeliers, and the lighting. Plus, they did a bang-up job installing a pink-lit revolving door into the side of that old building (wait, that’s PERMANENT?). In any case, it’s ideal for a Halloween party.

The 100-kuai entry fee for this annual bash came with two drinks (Freixenet sparkling wine in my case) and enough Halloween sweets to wire half the city. The crowd reportedly topped 600, and Rui Fu was packed and rowdy, with most people costumed. The usual angels, devils, cross-dressers, naughty nurses and assorted dorks were on hand, along with a Yao Ming (i.e. a basketball ball-jersey wearing guy on stilts) and owner Henry Lee as Glandalf or Gargamal or whatever you call that Lord of the Rings wizard (the only character I can remember from that movie is Farto. Or is it Frito?)

This event was not without problems. The free drinks ran out, though late at night, and this led to some arguments between patrons and bartenders. that’s Beijing did damage control by handing out refunds. (Those who paid the cover but didn’t get drinks may email info@thatsbj.com.) On top of this, the overwhelmed Rui Fu staff did not handle the stress well, resulting in further friction with patrons and lengthy waits for drinks. Despite this and the place seeming somewhat out of control, people seemed to be having a great time and this annual party, held the last two years at Tango, remains a must-go on the Halloween circuit.

After mingling for an hour with the masses, The Crow and I headed upstairs, plunked down on the balcony and for thirty minutes watched drama unfold in the parking lot. 1. A man strutted about while insulting everybody’s mother and threatening Zimbu (Henry dealt with this guy). 2. Another man smashed the ends off two beer bottles (I thought that only happened in movies) and waved the jagged edges as his concerned friends tried to restore calm, the scene dragging out so long that it lost all momentum and ended peacefully. 3. A car backed over a case of empties. It was an interesting vantage point, especially given the good company. Such as the guy who came onto the balcony, saw our that’s Beijing entry stickers, snorted the air as if they were scratch n’ sniff and scented with cho dofu, and said: “Oh, you are wearing zee badge of zat’s Beijing. I suppose you are zee magazine’s property.” (I know it’s not nice to make fun of people’s accents, but it’s also not nice to make fun of stickers, and fair is fair.)

“Yes,” I answered. Agreeing can often defuse a situation or, as in this case, confuse it. Le hater de autocollants (stickers) paused, heaved his chest and announced, “I am from France!

“No you’re not. You’re from Belgium,” I answered, hoping the confusion route might yet work. After another moment of perplexity, he again defiantly uttered, “France!

Belgium!” I sternly replied. At this point, I shifted my shoulder to emphasize the presence of Zimbu. The man obviously sensed that the power of a plush monkey was about to be unleashed because he retreated. The Crow and I looked at each other, shook our heads in disbelief, finished our Budweiser, and ended a weird, interesting and somewhat scary night at Rui Fu.

The Zimbu moment: The plush monkey received kisses from a half-dozen people, including newsletter reader Nikki, who I met for the first time. The scary moment: when club owner Henry looked as though he might kidnap Zimbu and spirit him away in that gigantic Gandalf (or was it Harry Potter?) hat.

The party: Timeout’s bash at Icehouse
Intrigued by Icehouse’s recent redesign from blues bar to art gallery, and the numerous last-minute SMS and email invitations from Timeout, I popped in around ten on Saturday night. The place was somewhat thematic given that it was as active as a graveyard. Although Icehouse made an effort with the decorations, I was among the few costumed people, and most patrons sat around zombie-like, including a handful getting manicures and massages on the stage, while DJ Daisy futilely played house music for these living dead. Surreal. The 50-kuai entry fee got me one of those ubiquitous Freixenet sparkling wine cocktails. I tried a “Black Magic” (Freixenet and Beamish beer) and then a “Bubbly Mojito” (Freixenent, white rum, lemon juice and mint leaves), and both were decent.

The Zimbu moment: Given that he lacks musculature, the massages were lost on Zimbu, who was annoyed at the apathy of his fellow patrons, save for media bigwig TP, who exchanged a long and hostile look with the monkey (obviously an alpha male thing). I got Zimbu out of Icehouse before the chef upstairs decided to use him for some fusion cuisine.

The party: Champagne Bar’s Yelloween
It was quality over quantity at Champagne, where about 40 patrons were having a great time. There were plenty of decorations and almost everyone was in costume, including a posse of short-panted, red-hatted cowgirls that I saw later that night with their cowboys busting moves at Browns.

The Zimbu moment: Once again, kisses, cuddles and handshakes all around for the monkey. The female wait staff’s vine-like accessories delighted Zimbu, reminding him of jungles back home.

The party: Maggie’s Bar
An incredible number of the female patrons were dressed up as “ladies of the evening” and, as if they were mind readers, most of the males dressed up as patrons of such women. I know, what are the odds?

The Zimbu moment: One costumed lass offered Zimbu a 50-percent plush monkey discount “for the night” because she thought he was “small and cute.” I got him out of there, but not before he made a few cutting remarks that it’s not the height of the tree, but the size of the banana hanging in it.

The party: Browns Scary Halloween
Costumed employees greeted guests outside and directed them up the stairs, which were enclosed and converted into a haunted house. Cobwebs, skeletons and paper pumpkins covered almost every inch of the interior, while boxy ghosts made from the bed-sheets of marketing manager Drew spun from the ceiling fans. Two smoke machines kept the scene eerily fun, though visibility was down to a mere meter at times. This total decoration apparently took five days to set up and cost Browns 25000 kuai. The 100-kuai entry fee included a Hoegaarden, a Jagermeister shot and a bag of treats. I liked the “eyeball martini” concocted by Jackie, with its creepy garnish of a lychee stuffed with a black olive. And what better platform for a costume show than Browns’ bar top? Overall, it was an excellent night, and the key ingredient was not the decoration, drinks or music, but the enthusiasm of the staff that put it all together. It speaks volumes that employees from other bars holding Halloween parties were gathering in Browns by night’s end.

The Zimbu moment: Drew bought a shot of tequila for Zimbu, little knowing that it takes far more than one drink to get this monkey to dance on the bar.

* Note: I have been “monkey-sitting” Zimbu for almost ten years, ever since I lived in South Korea and my American colleague Jen left him behind when she ran off to Berlin to marry some German photographer. At least once a year, she reminds me that I am to return Zimbu someday, particularly as he is rising in value as a collectible Beanie Baby. Unfortunately, she is unaware of the depreciation that can occur for a plush monkey with an adventurous nightlife. Zimbu has been a part of my Halloween costume every year, whether I dress as a pirate, bandit or other miscreant, and thus fallen onto nightclub floors, soaked up more than a few spilled beers and been embossed with a hundred shades of lipstick from affectionate partygoers. When Jen and Zimbu are finally reunited, I have a feeling it will be one of those shocking “You’re not the same monkey I remember!” moments.

(From Beijing Boyce XXVII, first emailed on November 23, 2006)

One hundred and forrrrrrty!

“I will be having my birthday soon and want to find a bar with a darts board that we can use. Where are the best ones now? All I know have gone mainly SLT South Street, Minders and the rest. I know the Goose and Duck but I would rather perish on a frozen mountainside than drink there. Any other recommendations? An otherwise quiet bar that I can bring about 20 people to? Your advice, oh great sage, is much appreciated. – Rob”

Sage? Wow! That makes me wonder two things: 1) how much did you have to drink before writing this email, and 2) what would a sage martini taste like?

In any case, I’m going to give a shout out to The 5:19 Bar & Grill, which hosts the Beijing International Darts League. This place can comfortably fit 20 people and the owner, Dave, has a good selection of drinks. The 5:19 is on “Super Bar Street”: 28 Xingba Lu, Nuren Jie, Chaoyang District; 8448-0896.

Cheers and happy birthday, BB

Capone’s: Soft Opening This Friday

A reader recently asked about the location of the new Capone’s. I thought the answer might be of interest to others: 

“Hi Alan, 

“Capone’s Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar will have its soft opening this Friday, December 15, 7-9 PM. 

“According to the invite: ‘Inspired by the Chicago lifestyle in the 1920s, Capone’s Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar is a modern Italian venue, interpreting the old concept with a new touch. It offers creative and traditional Italian food and desserts, also signature dishes by Italian chef, Marco Trentin; houses a comfortable collection of wines from different parts of the world accompanied by dreamy live jazz amongst other musical selections; and aim’s to serve the customers with all the hearts.’ (They could use a copy editor, that’s for sure.) 

“Capone’s is in Le Place, the new fancy pants shopping area near Ritan Park. Contact info: L404A, 4F, Mansion A, Le Place 9 Guanghua Lu; 5144-9168.