They Say Life Begins at 100,000…

When issue 32 of Beijing Boyce comes out at week’s end, it will bring the newsletter close to 100,000-word territory. That’s 3,000+ words per issue, with the massive Shanghai edition last year topping 5,000. If I had a kuai for each one, I’d be buying a few rounds of Alfonso Specials for my readers.

Even though traffic on this blog is quickly growing, the 16-month-old newsletter remains my baby. It’s comprehensive, easy to print, and has write-ups not yet on the blog. Issue 32 will cover:

- The first of my Chinese wine tastings. The mission: to find seven decent wines that retail for less than 700 kuai total, so readers can hold affordable tastings at home. Which among Catai, Grace, Bodega Langes and Changyu wins round one?
- The hairy, sweaty truth behind 5:19 Bar & Grill, and why some call it “home, sweet home.”
- Part three of the bar-hopping series, On the Go with Eddie O, with an Aussie twist.
- And the return of We Got Mail

If you’d like the newsletter, send an email to beijingboyce@yahoo.com with “Eat, Drink and Be Merry” in the subject line. If you’d like to know more about who I am and why I write this newsletter and blog, then check my about section. I’ll be doing something fun for Issue 33…

Feeling Exiled in Beijing? Ay! It’s Time for ‘The Fonz’!

If you are among those expatriates assigned to Beijing by your company or Embassy and are unhappy about it, then I have the cocktail for you.

The Alfonso Special is named after Spain’s King Alfonso XIII, who was exiled in 1931 and spent his final decade in France and Italy, where I assume he enjoyed a few drinks. (He’s not to be confused with “The Fonz,’ shown here on a bikea phone and the cover of, well, not exactly The Rolling Stone.)

A few weeks ago, I went to Q Bar early and asked co-owner / bartender George to give this cocktail a try. It was my attempt to move beyond the normally dry drinks I favor and to something sweeter. It was a success and I’ve since introduced this cocktail to my friends.

The Alfonso Special
1 measure Grand Marnier
3/4 measure dry vermouth
3/4 measure gin
4 dashes of sweet vermouth
1 dash angostura bitters

Stir (with ice) and strain.

Other recipes call for 1.5 measures of Grand Marnier and varying amounts of dry and sweet vermouth.

Note that sounds like it’s related to alcohol, but really isn’t: King Alfonso was from the royal House of Bourbon.

Glass Act: Bordeaux-style Beauties for 10 Kuai

All you need is wine…
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Faced with a wine tasting in my home in two days and a glass collection devastated since that last purchase over a year ago at the long-gone Riverside Cafe, I went on a shopping mission last week. M-Dawg and Pony suggested the Flower Market and I hit pay dirt there. I dug up the 22-ounce, thin-rimmed, Bordeaux-style Stone Island beauties above for a mere 10 kuai each.

I picked up 36 and went back the next day for six more (all they had left), 12 Champagne flutes (10 kuai per) and a decanter (40 kuai). The first photo below shows the Bordeaux-style glass vis-a-vis a bottle of wine. The second adds in a flute and decanter. The third is for fun. (Click the thumbnails for larger pictures.)

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I got my glasses at Jujiayuan, the shop farthest back in a group of three in the Flower Market’s basement. If you go there, mention the “guy who bought 30 glasses” and you’ll likely get that 10-kuai price without haggling. Since I bought all of the 22-ounce glasses, you might want to call Zhao Xu Fai 13391-936-198 at the store to see if he has restocked.

Wine Tips: Siebers’ Suggestions

As we all know, wine is a many-flavored beverage. To get the most enjoyment out of our grape friend, I emailed Dan Sieber, a bigwig at Summergate Wines, and asked him for five tips for imbibers. He wrote back with 12, including several specific to China (4, 7, 11 and 12):

“1. Your expectations of what a wine SHOULD taste like are 100 times more powerful than what the ACTUAL wine tastes like. Pour a nice bottle of wine into an empty bottle of bad wine (or vise versa), make some popcorn and enjoy the show. In other words, tasting wine blind (not knowing what the wine is) is the only way to really experience what the wine is like (even with experts this is true). I think that this is the only way to really learn wine (tasting that is, factual knowledge is from books).

“2. Always buy wines from family-owned producers. Huge corporations own most of the most famous wineries in the world. They bought them from the original family owners who made the winery great. The corporation then, to different degrees of speed, bleeds the quality out of the winery until there is nothing left to the brand. These wines are never good over the long term, as the quarterly stock report is god. The corporations buy ratings by purchasing big ads with the influential magazines, and some of the famous critics are directly on the payroll. Robert Parker is the only one I know of who is truly independent (or is the best at hiding it: either way it is just his taste. I don’t listen to him, he just helps by giving a general indication that the wine is good). Family wineries think in terms of generations, so quality is always the most important. Of course, my competition will try to disagree with this, but I have no idea how they could.

“3. No one is a wine expert. There is just WAY too much to know. In many groups of friends, there is one guy who is known as the wine guy. These guys often are the worst spreaders of wine myths (I saw it hundreds of times in restaurants where I was the wine waiter). Never take what others say about wine as truth, only get wine information from books. You would not trust 100 percent the word of a friend for a medical issue; you would listen and then look it up. Wine is the same. Even from me, I am not a wine expert, just a wine geek… that happens to also have a very opinionated personality

“4. When you are in a restaurant and order wine, and the server says, “Sorry, that one is out of stock, try this one” 90 percent of the time they really do have it in stock. They are lying because they get money to sell the one they suggested, and not for the one you ordered, ESPECIALLY if they are recommending a Chinese wine. If they do not follow up with a recommendation after telling you it is out of stock, it probably really is out of stock. If you think that you are being tricked, ask to talk to the owner if you are in a restaurant, or send an email the next day to the food and beverage director if you are in a hotel.

“5. Expensive is not always better. The reward of learning lots about wine is how to get a wine that tastes like 400 USD for 40 USD. That takes a looooong time to learn, and those are not easy to find. It is the big direct benefit from learning wine (besides just feeding the passion for wine). Spending a lot of money on a bottle is only necessary if you don’t know wine – then it can guarantee you some level of quality.

“6. Never believe someone when they say this one is better than that one, only YOU can decide that. If you like Hatsune, but someone tells you that they think Matsuko is better (assuming you have tried Matsuko a few times), would you just believe them and forget your own tastes? Of course not, you would just ignore that person’s remarks, confident that you like Hatusne better. Yes, as you drink your tastes will evolve, but no matter what stage you are at, something good to you just tastes good to you. Don’t worry about others, just be able to understand WHY you think it tastes better than wine B, and think about it. That will start the learning process.

“7. If you like a bottle of wine you are having at a restaurant, friend’s house, etc., turn the bottle around and write down the company name and phone number on the Chinese back label. All importers do home delivery, and at much better prices.

“8. You pay a premium for wines from famous regions of about 25-100 percent over wines of the same quality from lesser-known regions. However, without drinking experience, lesser-known regions can be a risk for quality. They are lesser-known for a reason…

“9. Don’t worry about vintages, focus on producers for quality. Good producers make good wine every year, bad producers make bad wine every year.

“10. Regions can only give you an indication of style, not quality. If you had a wine from XXX region or grape that you really liked, I hope you remember the producer also, because the region/grape doesn’t mean much besides an indication of style. It would be like saying, “I ate at a restaurant in New York and it was good, so all the restaurants in New York must be good.”

“11. Dry wines just don’t MATCH with Chinese food. Please everyone stop trying. It is possible to do it, but in the end the meal no longer resembles anything like a normal Chinese meal (wide selection of dishes, all in the middle for sharing, arriving whenever). Drinking wine with Chinese food is not about pairing, it is about wine survival. Top wine killers: spice (even mild), anything with vinegar (sauce, pickled, etc.), green vegetables, sweetness, bitterness.

“12. Sweet wines are not just for dessert! If you can eat gong pao chicken, then you can have sweet wine with your meal! They are both really sweet. The only wines that have done well (just my opinion) from beginning to end through a Chinese meal are Ports and Sauternes (or other types of thick sweet wines). These wines are the best at wine survival, and can even match well with some dishes. Try a Port with Beijing Duck (easy on the onions and sauce).

First Impressions: China Doll

In an earlier newsletter, I described China Doll, the new three-floor club in Tongli Studio, as having “skipped the large open spaces, excessive neon and annoying light displays of other places and gone for intimacy – cozy seating, subtle lighting and clever use of mirrors and space.” What I didn’t mention was a short continuously looping video that plays on the first and second floor, and sometimes borders on soft porn. It’s hard to describe, so let me slide into stream of consciousness mode for a few minutes and try:

“A lithesome Asian woman dressed in gaudy jewelry, a thong and high heels swims in place underwater, her long hair billowing. (Patriarchal theme?) Upon reflection, maybe it’s less that she’s swimming and more that she’s STRUGGLING FOR AIR! (Symbolizing male domination?) Oh, now there is a MAN in the scene. He’s underwater, too, but fully clothed, and the woman is tackling him. (Fighting inequality!) Okay, I judged that one too quickly. She’s not tackling him. She’s trying to escape and – ouch! – kicking with those high heels. (Her gender is her weapon!). Look out! Major shift o’theme! Now a pair of dudes coated in what might be margarine are doing the clothing optional, underwater, slow-motion luge. (Olympics theme? We’re in Beijing, shouldn’t it be a summer sport?). Now they’ve been replaced by two women wearing tacky lingerie and lace gloves. (Salt water on lace!) One is behind the other, kind of frolicking, then reaching around and grabbing her breast. (Is that a summer or winter sport?) I’d go on, but my stream of consciousness ran dry. My guess is that the anonymous swimmer is one of the co-owners, Ai Wan, who appeared in that Robert Palmer Addicted to Love video, and the two luge mates are her bodyguards, who will pummel me next time I’m in the club. I could be wrong – especially and hopefully about the second part.

Anyway, the video gets tiresome by the third loop, though I worry about its effect on the impressionable minds of the young employees who’ve likely seen it a thousand times. Don’t be surprised if ten years from now some margarine-coated ex-China Doll staffer goes postal while watching the winter Olympics or passing by a lingerie shop.

Video aside, China Doll is a cool spot. The first floor faces Cheers and features a bar and lounge. The second floor is tightly organized and ringed by both canopied and open lounge areas, most of them with seating for six to ten. The dance floor is in the middle. Behind it is an excellent four-sided bar with padded areas for sticking your elbows! With this layout, even a dozen people is enough to give the place a good vibe. The top floor has the private rooms.

As for the decor, the “sex” theme extends beyond the video to the backlit nude photos, curvaceous lamps, and so on – a bit cheesy. Fortunately, the use of mirrors, subdued lighting and warm colors (such as yellows and reds) nicely pairs with the water-themed photos on the wall – the atmosphere is intimate. (Candles would be nice, but I guess it would raise fire concerns.) China Doll feels part Centro, part Suzie Wong and part Q Bar.

The drink selection is somewhat limited – the menu simply lists “standard drinks” for the Gin Tonic et al crowd – although there are fun house cocktails. A shot of Bourbon runs 35 to 40 kuai, a Heineken is 35 kuai, and Newcastle and Guinness are 45 kuai. The bar employees are quick and polite, and impressively handled a massive amount of traffic on a Saturday night. The management is visible and attentive. (The only problems I had during five visits were on the first floor, as two wait staff forgot my group’s order.)

While the clientele tends toward young and professional, it is nonetheless diverse. During my last visit, I left the second floor bar, which held a half-dozen nationalities spanning 30 years, and passed a big group of middle-aged Europeans in a lounge area on my right and a group of young local Chinese in the one on my right, all of them swaying to the music and having fun. Good times.

(Note: One wonders from where China Doll will draw patrons. I’m guessing it will siphon people from nearby Bar Blu and Browns, from the Gongti West club scene and those tired of Suzie Wong, and from the crowd that had such high hopes for Rui Fu, as well as fans of the old Cloud Nine – the one that was chai’d just down the street two years ago.)