Browns: Love It…?

In tomorrow’s blog Browns: … or Hate It

I first stumbled into Browns one year ago, on its second day of business. The place was virtually empty, but the food, drinks, service and layout, including the tiered seating and high ceilings, showed great potential (Browns: Carnegie’s Comes to the Middle Kingdom). Brown’s excellent hard launch party reinforced this:

Browns put its money where its mouth is by holding an all-night two-for-one party two weeks ago. The special didn’t suddenly end halfway through the evening when the owner panicked about losing money. It wasn’t limited to those drinks that are dirt cheap to make. And the drinks themselves were not watered down. It all raised the question: Was this really happening in Beijing? I mean, did I really witness from opening to closing – which came sometime after I left at 4 AM – Guinness and Kilkenny for a mere 17.5 kuai per pint?

I’ve now been to Browns about ten times, either for drinks or food, and it has the potential of becoming the year’s best bar.  (See No Blues for Browns for the full review.)

That potential was due to investment in hardware and software, a decent location in Sanlitun south, the unpretentiousness of the clientele and the uniqueness of the bar, at least in the Beijing market (although Agent Red Wolf called it “a big Suzie Wong’s”).

There were problems – typos littered the menu, some employees struggled with taking orders and the music left something to be desired. It was also sobering to hear someone describe Browns as “the hottest bar in town” while I listened to Michael Jackson‘s Beat It, sipped an average Gin Tonic and watched two nerdy expatriates try to pick up.

But Browns was on its way. That party kick-started many a night of good clean fun, and a few months later, it won as best new bar and best overall bar at the that’s Beijing annual awards.

A year on, Browns is slightly battered and bruised. Some key employees have recently left, most notably the supervisor, who had been on board since day one. The space behind the main room, which was to hold whiskey and tequila bars, remains unfinished. And while Browns still makes for a fun night out with friends, the crowds are sparse at times. There is also more competition, with the newest kid on the block being China Doll.

Two weeks ago, Browns marked its anniversary, and M-Dawg and I showed up to find a 50-kuai cover charge and a two-for-one special where the free drink was a beer from a serving station near the coat check. Not exactly 17.5-kuai pints of Guinness. To be fair, though, the music was good, the crowd fun, and the blue cheese wings tasty, making for a good night. (Thanks to owner Philip for giving me one of the “best customer” plaques.) 

Overall, Browns deserves credit for a solid year – its excellent Halloween party, its great selection of draft beers and the many memories it has given to those brave enough to dance on the bar top and those sensible enough to remain on solid ground. Now that the rookie campaign is over, Browns faces a substantial challenge, in Beijing’s increasingly competitive and unforgiving bar scene, of raising its game and maintaining momentum.

A Shovel-full of Your Finest, Please

According to this story, Earth-eating Girl Tilts At Guinness Record, an Inner Mongolian woman has her stomach set on eating dirt for two months:

The girl, called Wuqibalaqiqige, became a minor celebrity after the media broadcast stories about her curious eating habits last year… The girl said she feels no need to eat normal food now that she has discovered how much she likes to eat soil.

I suppose her diet is low-fat and high-protein (think worms), but what wines would go with it? I asked Campbell Thompson of ASC Fine Wines (when it comes to dining, he prefers not to soil himself, so to speak, but he did respond to my suggestion of an earth / Riesling pairing):

You could play with the idea of ‘terroir’ – the idea that well-made wines are an expression of the place they are from, which includes the idea that the mineral elements of the soil are expressed in the wine.

Good Rieslings are often ‘full of terroir’ – because they are made without oak or malolactic fermentation they are a fairly pure expression of the grapes, and the grapes in turn are a fairly pure expression of the soil and microclimate they come from. Sancerre (wine from the Loire Valley in France, made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes) is also often described as having a pronounced ‘mineral’ taste.

Personally, I’d suggest a good Seghesio Old Vine Zinfandel from California – it is rich and silky (so would help to get the dirt down your throat), and also clocks in at around 14.5% alcohol, which would also help to alleviate the negatives of a dirt-rich diet.

Malolactic fermentation? Maybe dirt doesn’t sound so bad after all. In any case, note that sauce can play a key factor in any pairing. If you enjoy sprinkling Tabasco on your earth, that Riesling might be a better pick than Zinfandel. And if you’re the type with a fancy for earth and black truffles, consider a Burgundy.

(Note: I spotted the story about Wuqibalaqiqige on chriswaugh_bj.)

Tanking It to the Top

China Daily had a story about a drunk tank that specializes in handling smashed, hammered, plastered, zooed, chai’d and three sheets to the winded foreign tourists – Foreigners have a place to dry out in Kunming.

The [alcohol detoxification] unit run by Kunming First People’s Hospital was set up especially for foreigners on January 16. The move was initiated after many foreign visitors were found drunk on the streets, Yunnan Daily reports.

I don’t think Beijing should take this lying down, shakily leaning against a wall, or even slightly slumped over a chair after one too many. Trust me, this city has more drunk foreigners that the good folks in Kunming could imagine in their wildest dreams. All it would require to raise our city to the pantheon of drunk tanks would be to block a few streets leading into Sanlitun and roof the whole area with a cheap plastic tarp. Not only would this protect Beijing’s general population, but it would also represent an aesthetic improvement for Sanlitun.

(I first spotted this story on Chris Waugh’s blog.)

Shout II! Winopete, Now in Shangers

I gave a shout last week to Peter W, who has started a bar newsletter in Shanghai. His most recent issue is so info-packed that it demands a second shout: I mean, who else has recommendations not only on the best spots for getting a beer or glass of wine, but also mashed potatoes?(Plus, his return shout was appreciated.) To get his newsletter, email winopetechina@yahoo.com with “Eaglehawk” in the subject line (its his favorite wine). Here’s his most recent…

WINOPETE’S PUB NEWS – 26TH JANUARY, 2007

SASHA’S WINE BUFFET

Sasha’s (corner of Hengshan and Dongping Roads) holds a wine buffet every Friday from 6.30-9.00 pm during which it’s a full-on, free-for-all rush to the bar to see who can sample all 12+ wines before one’s fellow soaks. Cost is RMB148. Remember that at this establishment a regular glass of wine will normally drain your Christian Dior wallet/purse by at least RMB55. The wine buffet contains a selection of mixed whites and reds. Although there are many ‘nasty Nellys’, there are usually a couple of decent labels thrown in among the line-up to make the offer more tempting for vino know-alls.

With specials such as this, a Monday pints and pizza night for RMB100; a half-price happy hour daily from 5-7pm for standard drinks, good grub and a crackerjack wine list, it is no wonder that Sasha’s is soaring high when many competitors are struggling to earn a shekel. Service at Sashas has also come on leaps and bounds. It has taken them 10 unstable years to reach this level though, with many obstacles to be battled along the way; now it appears they can finally consolidate and briefly smell the RMB roses before raising the level even higher. Good luck, fellas!

FREELANCE TUESDAY SPECIAL

Every Tuesday til 9pm, Freelance (on Yueyang Rd, near Dongping Rd intersection) plies RMB15 tacos and RMB25 draught beers (Heineken and San Mig), both which are decent specials better than a poke in the eye with a blunt stick. I indulged recently and was pleasantly surprised; the tacos were good on flavour, but a tad small. If you’re a Texan-sized teddy bear, you would need to order at least 6, while if you’re a sweet, Shanghainese ‘xiaojie’, 2 or 3 would probably suffice.

Business at Freelance seems to have picked up recently, which is hopefully the start of an auspicious trend – and not before time either, given that this place opened about 10 months ago to a din of deserted seats. A rumour is circulating that an ousted wine bar investor is considering joining forces with Lance, so watch this space…

FREE BOOZE ON TAIKANG LU THIS SATURDAY

A very reliable snout has informed me that there’ll be FREE beer (probably Steinlager), gluwein and other drinks from 2-4pm this Saturday at the opening event of a shop called Vervia. Located on Lane 248, Taikang Lu (enter from Lane 210), Vervia is apparently a merchant of furniture, fashion accessories, homeware and decorative items. Should you be in the area this Saturday arvo, how can you refuse free booze? I’ll be making a bee-line for it!

ASIAXPAT CHAMPAGNE MIXER: 1 FEBRUARY

Asiaxpat.com will hold its next ‘champagne mixer’ fron 8-11pm on 1 February at Jade on 36 (Shangri-La Hotel Pudong, Tower 2, 36/f). During this time all champagne and martinis will be buy one, get one free. Despite this being a pricier mixer than most, it always gets a good crowd and is worth checking out at least once. If you’re worried about knocking back the drinks too quickly, better first have a few happy hour pints at the Blue Frog nearby.

BAR INFO

Heading anytime soon to Beijing? Don’t know where to drink apart from Maggie’s? No worries, me old China, help is at hand. Check out : http://www.beijingboyce.com. There’s a website and you can sign up for free fortnightly newsletters, each the length of an Oxford Dictionary. Jimbo has traipsed around the traps for a good while now, so you won’t be led astray (but if that’s what you’re seeking, just ask). Pass on the word to any friends/colleagues/others who may be Beijing-bound too.

RANDOM RECOMMENDATIONS

Best mashed potato: Dublin Exchange (Level 2, HSBC Building, Lujiazui)

Best long island iced tea: Sasha’s (Hengshan/ Dongping corner)

Bar with the best view: Jade on 36, Shangri-La Hotel, Pudong

Best pint of Guinness: Blarney Stone (5c Dongping Road)

Best mojito: El Cubano (Hongmei Road, just nth of Yan’an intersection)

Bar with the best loo: (Sorry, haven’t got to the bottom of it yet)

Best bar music: Great older rock videos at Woodstock (Tongren Rd) on Fri/Sat

Best uniforms: Hooters

Best value wine tastings: Any Summergate event

Most educational wine tastings: Any Ruby Red event – www.rubyred.co.nz

Best place for a drinking holiday: The Philippines

AUSSIE DRINKS EVERY FRIDAY AT THE XINGGUO RADISSON

The Australian Chamber of Commerce (‘Austcham’) holds a weekly social drinks function (only Aussies can tolerate a weekly official piss-up) at the Xingguo Radisson Plaza Hotel (78 Xingguo Road, corner of Huashan Road) in their level 1 Tavern Bar. The fun starts at 6pm and usually winds up about 10. Apart from food on offer, there are some good drink specials: Fosters Ice and Shanghai Dragon beer is just RMB10; spirits with mixers are just a snip at RMB25; juices are sacrificed at only RMB15, with Aussie wine at RMB35/glass (often Eaglehawk). For non-conformers and wusses who want to sip on a soft drink, it’ll set you back a whopping 5-10RMB, but if you take this teetotaller path, be prepared for your photo to be shown in every gutter rag from Dalian to Devonport.

As 26th January is Australia Day (Australia’s national day), many Aussies will be out on a bender tonight. Small-scale Aussie parties are scheduled for tonight at Koala Bar, Malones and Eager Beaver.

Just a few more things to note on Australia Day:

Skippy, the bush kangaroo: the name of a famous TV series in Oz 30+ years ago

Skippy, the butch kangaroo: maybe found at Club Deep in Jing An Park

Skippy, the butchered kangaroo: in the kitchen at Laris

Skippy, the pushed kangaroo: is that Mat?

HEARD THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE

Not much juicy ‘goss’ this week, but here are a few tidbits:

1) Two days after sampling Freelance’s taco special and writing the above report, a reliable snout informs me that the place is about to go belly up. Thanks, BB.

2) Eduardo Vegas is seriously considering taking over 5 on the Bund, after 239 (his restaurant at 239 Shimen Yi Lu) was recently abandoned due to landlord problems.

3) Castle October, a colossal Paulaner-type complex opposite O’Malleys on Taojiang Lu, is almost ready for its soft opening. The drum is that their rent is 350,000RMB per month and it has a Korean brewmeister. More juicy info to follow soon 9 (and you thought CSI was hard to watch!) 

HAPPY DRINKING!

Icehouse: Did It Stand a Snowball’s Chance?

RBL (Restaurant, Bar, Lounge), which included blues joint The Icehouse, bit the dust a few weeks ago. This was not surprising (see below) but it was sad, given that I love the blues and knew several investors and the general manager. I was about to write a post about the bar’s demise when reader DM sent me a detailed synopsis. Like DM, I had doubts about the place from the beginning:

… Icehouse reminds me of the New York Yankees baseball team. They spend outrageous amounts of money on their product, they have lots of strong backing and they have a good customer base (Icehouse has Chopschticks comedy shows, ASC wine tastings, Beijing Cheese Society events, etc.). The stars are aligned, but something just doesn’t feel right.” (See Fengshui Fiasco at Icehouse for the rest of that first review.)

DM explains what wasn’t right.

Hey Boyce,

I just read your thing on The Icehouse problems. Maybe it’s old, but I read it this morning, so it’s new to me.

The reasons Icehouse failed were obvious to me from the outset:

1. Location: I have lived in Beijing for a number of years and in all that time no one has said to me, “Hmmm, I know what we should do tonight, let’s go down to Wangfujing and hit the bars.” Not once. Let’s go to Wangfujing and buy some books this afternoon, sure, but drinking in the evening? Nah, and I don’t think I am that unrepresentative of the Beijing expat bar goer, nor is my crowd. Certainly local ex-pats weren’t gonna do it.

2. Price: Again, why would I go down there and pay 50 kuai for a cocktail when I can get a drink for 10 kuai at Nan Jie, or if I want live music, I can get a drink for 20 kuai at Yu Gong Yi Shan, to name just two bars on the well-worn ex-pat track. I can even go to Q, and get quality cocktails and listen to jazz CDs, without having to make the effort [of going to Icehouse.]

3. Blues Appeal: As you probably guessed from my email name [bloozman], I have been involved in the blues scene for many years in many cities, and spent an inordinate amount of my life in blues bars, from Toronto to Dublin to Chicago to New Orleans. I can tell you, blues fans tend to divide into two groups. 1. Blue-collar, working class types, who are definitely beer/jack [Jack Daniels] drinkers and not going to be found dead in a bar like The Icehouse. 2. Yuppies who like the blues and like pretending they are into that lowdown blue-collar stuff, and therefore ain’t gonna be caught dead there unless there is a special event, like BB King is in town or something. And local musicians ain’t gonna hang out there and listen to the music cause most of the musicians I know in this town, especially the Chinese ones, can barely afford a 10-kuai Qingdao.

4. Pretentiousness: The locals ain’t gonna bother comin’ down, so that leaves the tourists. They don’t know the prices are expensive, they don’t know they can drink cheaper elsewhere… so where is it [The Icehouse]? Hmmm, when it opened there was no sign of any kind, just a sliding glass door leading into what looked like a lounge or a hallway with sofas. Eventually they put up a sign, a modest sign that said RBL. Hmmm, that really tells me it’s a blues bar. The upshot of this situation was that outside hundreds and hundreds of visitors were walking up and down eating their scorpions on a stick with no idea that behind that sliding glass door was a bar with live music. So you have a band inside playing to 15 people and hundreds, maybe thousands of potential customers were obliviously walking by outside, and even a sign saying “live music” or “blues tonight” would have caused some of those scorpion eaters to say, “Hey Martha, look at that. I haven’t heard good blues since I as at that convention in Milwaukee. Let’s check it out before we go back to the hotel.” But that would have run smack up against the ownerships pretensions, their delusions of cool.

In fact, the owners were hoist on the petard of their own pretensions, picking the building without regard to the demographics, to the potential customer base, but rather what they thought was cool. This is all too common a failing in bars and restaurants in this city and what annoys me more even than that – I mean if rich guys want to throw away their money, that’s their business – but what annoys me is that no one in the press ever seems to point this sort of thing out. All during The Icehouse existence you would read descriptions, certainly in the ex -pat press, of how cool it was, how trendy, and no one ever said in any review I read, “Wait a minute, only somebody with the brain scan of a dieffenbachia would put a blues bar in Wangfujing in the same complex as a fusiony-type restauarant, charge 50 kuai for drinks, put up no signage, and expect anyone to show up.”

If you build it they will not come, not if it’s The Icehouse.