Yes, but I want a fapiao with my fries

A marathon session with our company’s annual report last week has the “YES, we’ve seen progress, BUT the following needs to happen” attitude oozing from my pores. In that vein, here’s part three in my three-part “yes, but” series on Beijing.

YES, not so long ago, you couldn’t get non-instant coffee, disposable razors, Froot Loops or frozen French fries in Beijing. Now, we have an ever-growing range of imported food and drink at April Gourmet and Jenny Lou’s, BUT why, when I’m throwing down some major coin on these goods, is it so hard to get an official local receipt?

“We don’t have any today, come back tomorrow,” comes the tired refrain. What happens when you do return the next day? Sometimes, you get the same old excuse. (At least the taxi driver taking you there has a receipt.)

My worst experiences have been at the April Gourmet shop near Gongti North Road, where this sorry line has been rolled out more than a half-dozen times or, in other words, every time I’ve asked for a receipt. If these places can keep pita bread, Corn Flakes and green olives stocked, surely they can have a receipt booklet, so the customers don’t have to shoulder the store’s tax obligations.

I stood my ground at that April Gourmet last year. After hearing the “no receipt” line yet again, I told the cashier that either: a) he gave me a receipt; or b) I was going to complain to the authorities. The result was a 15-minute exchange during which he proclaimed everything from embarrassment at lacking receipts to haughty outrage at my stance. My approach was simpler: I stuck to outrage.

The highlight? When he pulled out a fapiao booklet and waved it in front of the growing line of customers. He flipped through the pages with flamboyant gesticulations to show how every receipt had been used, how he was an innocent little lamb at the hands of an overly demanding customer. (If filmed, this scene might have won China’s first Academy Award for best actor.)

Finally, a woman stepped out of line, announced she was a lawyer and negotiated a truce. April Gourmet’s position: I could come back the next day for a receipt. My position: That was fine, but the store should compensate me for the additional time and taxi fares this would incur. The resolution: April Gourmet agreed to (and did) deliver the receipt to my office. Yes, it took this much trouble to get a paper to which I am legally entitled from an establishment that gives me absolutely no problems while I’m handing over cash for their goods.

April Gourmet is by no means alone. Jenny Lou’s on Sanlitun North is also notorious for its dearth of fapiao. Again, the shelves are fully stocked with everything from soup to nuts, but when it comes to providing a receipt – oh, gosh – they always seem to be out! And again, standing your ground brings results. I find that hanging around near the cash register – complaining and refusing to leave – can inspire the staff to magically find that, indeed, they do have one last fapiao on hand…

Yes, sounds delicious, but I don’t feel like corn-fed songbirds today

A marathon session with our company’s annual report last week has the “YES, we’ve seen progress, BUT the following needs to happen” attitude oozing from my pores. In that vein, here’s part two in a three-part “yes, but” series on Beijing (check back here tomorrow for part three: “Yes, but I want a fapiao with my fries.”)

Eddie O: First He Brought The Bird, Then He Brought the Bun

YES, I suppose it’s absolutely fabulous that our city’s high-end eateries offer such fare as Roasted Marjoram-scented Medallions of Black Angus Tenderloin or Lightly Seared Foie Gras with Carmelized Apple and Teardrops of Clarified Chodofu Jus Misted with Essence of Maple Syrup and Dijon Mustard (I made up that tofu part, though chefs of Beijing are free to borrow). BUT, there seems to be a major gap between such lofty fare and your average roadside chuan’r stand. In other words, why is it so hard to find a decent burger?

True, you can find a burger at Kiosk, American Cafe or dozens of other places about town, but how about a spot where they’re made with flair, akin to those plump Beijing ducks cooked over red-hot coals? Imagine sliding a grill into that oven, slapping down a few burgers and cooking them medium rare (with a few duck drippings to boot)? Now, that would be something.

The best Beijing burgers I’ve had were those of ex-Mexican Wave guy Trevor Kuchar, who with his colleague Kenn put on some most excellent BBQs, on the Q Bar deck, last summer. Trevor got his meat from “the German butcher”, marinades it overnight, then cooks up burgers to perfection. Unfortunately, those BBQs are rare.

Given this, sometimes customers need to take matters into their own hands. There was a time when a certain Beijing bar figure named Eddie O liked the live music at Cheers, but loathed the bar’s lack of The Bird (Wild Turkey). This was easily solved — he bought the place a bottle and, when that was empty, another.

Eddie O has turned his attention to food. Last Friday, at high-end Italian joint Capone’s, he proclaimed his desire for a burger, an item absent from the menu. All evidence points to an animated discussion in which he promised to provide the bar, this coming Friday, with a bottle of Knob Creek Bourbon in exchange for the chef, Marco, putting aside the squid ink for a few minutes and making a burger. Eddie also offered to bring his own bun.

I called Eddie to investigate and he said, “I’ll be there with the bun at seven. I don’t care if they take steak tartar and turn into a burger, but I want something on that bread.”

Being the diligent sort, I visited Capone’s tonight (last night) and learned that, indeed, “Wild Turkey Man” had raved about burgers. This inspired the staff members to reflect: one noted the dearth of good burgers in Beijing, another drooled as he created an image for us of a patty topped with cheddar cheese slightly melted by fried mushrooms and onions, and yet another said that he makes the best hand-packed, three-quarter-inch-thick patties you could imagine. Given that Capone’s was fairly empty, I imagined the place full of people enjoying 65-kuai “gourmet” burgers and washing them down with plenty of drink.

In any case, on Friday night, Eddie shall appear there with his Knob Creek and his bun, and we shall see if this man, against all odds, can somehow bridge the gap between high-end eateries and that most basic, but nearly impossible to find in Beijing, of foods — the burger.

Note: The reference in the title to “corn-fed songbirds” comes from the “Today’s Special” chapter of David Sedaris’ book, “Me Talk Pretty One Day”:

[New York's SoHo] is where the world’s brightest young talents come to braise carmelized racks of corn-fed songbirds or offer up their famous knuckle of flash-seared crappie served with a collar of chided ginger and cornered by a tribe of kiln-roasted Chilean toadstools, teased with a warm spray of clarified musk oil… What I really want is a cigarette, and I’m always searching the menu in the hope that some courageous chef has finally recognized tobacco as a vegetable. Bake it, steam it, grill it, or stuff it into littleneck clams, I just need something familiar that I can hold on to.

Yes, but what about Bosh?

A marathon session with our company’s annual report last week has the “YES, we’ve seen progress, BUT the following needs to happen” attitude oozing from my pores. In that vein, here’s part one in a three-part “yes, but” series on Beijing (check back here tomorrow for part 2: “Yes, but I don’t feel like corn-fed songbirds today”.)

YES, sports bars such as The Pavillion, Frank’s Place and The Pomegranate have been nice additions to the scene over the past 18 months. They provide even more places in which to view rugby, cricket and that mesmerizing pursuit known as Formula 1 (zoom! zoooooooom! zoom! zoom!). BUT why is there nary a bar for North America league sports? I’m talking National Basketball Association (NBA) and National Hockey League (NHL), Major League Baseball (MLB) and National Football League (NFL).

Really, Beijing doesn’t have enough Americans, Canadians or people in general who like these sports to keep a bar, especially one that makes a decent burger, in business? Not enough people to turn the NCAA basketball tournament into a cash cow that brings in three months of revenue in a few weeks? Really, a place couldn’t survive by sponsoring the local ice and grid dogs, and being a hangout for beer, pub grub and replays of classic games?

Take Saturday tonight: I desperately wanted to see the opening game of the Toronto Raptors-New Jersey Nets series, as: 1) it’s Toronto’s first playoff game in years; 2) New Jersey’s star player used to be Toronto’s star player until, many fans believe, he stopped trying and forced a trade, after which he returned to his winning ways (the fiend!); 3) it pits a group of upstarts against a team with three stars; and 4) I generally cheer for any team with a player named Bosh, especially if he looks a bit like the mascot (in this case, a dinosaur). Thus, I loaded my wallet for three hours of massive food and beverage intake, but where to go?

First, I called 5:19. Owner Dave had a group just finishing with a Premier League game and they were interested in more soccer. Fair enough.

Then, I called Goose and Duck. “Are you showing the NBA tonight?” I asked. “We can put it on,” came the answer. I arrived just after midnight and three minutes before tipoff only to discover they couldn’t get the game. The staff was friendly and did their best, but even better had they checked the schedule before I took the 20-minute cab ride there.

With the clock ticking, I went to The Pavillion. Every TV featured cricket: that’s what was advertised, said a guy behind the bar. I noted a TV, next to the door, that NO ONE was watching. “How about basketball on that one?” I asked. Nope, he said, if he switches the channel on that TV it also switches the channel on another one at the bar. NO ONE was watching that other TV either, I further noted. Nope, he said, Pavillion advertised cricket and – I guess – even if NO ONE was watching it, that’s what The Pavillion would play.

So, I gave up. I went to my office and watched the game online. Instead of Beijing’s sports bars, I guess my NBA playoffs budget will be split between re-heated Pizza Buona (the best delivered pizza in town, IMHO) and 7-ELEVEN.

I wonder how many other Toronto Raptors as well as Boston Red Sox, Seattle Seahawks, Edmonton Oilers, LA Lakers, Houston Astros, Denver Broncos, Pittsburgh Penguins and myriad other NBA, NHL, NFL and MLB fans have has this experience. Really, with four leagues comprising more 100 total teams with seasons that overlap, thus meaning there is virtually a game every day, a sports bar couldn’t make money out of this? Until then, the number for Pizza Buona, on Gongti West Road, is 6551-3518.

Dragon Fruit, Rickshaws and Wine

The all-male crowd seems to have abandoned Q Bar as its Thursday night watering hole. The place was lightly populated tonight (last night), which meant peace and quiet as I sipped my Horse Neck (Bourbon, ginger ale and lemon) and chatted with bartenders-owners George and Echo. The Q will add frozen dragon fruit margaritas to the menu tomorrow night (tonight), a drink Echo and I first made during my only foray behind the bar in Beijing, at a birthday party last year. They’ll go for 55 kuai.

I walked to Q from The Rickshaw, which opens tomorrow night (tonight). Patrons of the spot’s former bar, Midnight, are in for a surprise – co-owner Kris Ryan has stripped the place down, to the cement floor at some points, and replaced the unbearable heaviness of the sofas with light furniture and open space. With a pool table, several flat-panel TVs and a balcony that offers views up and down Sanlitun South, the place has a new vibe – an unpretentious spot that fits the BJ psyche.

In the pigeonhole game, The Rickshaw hints at The Den, The Goose and Duck, and, of course, COX and Saddle (same owners), with a splash of old Sanlitun South, though it quickly enough it’ll find its own identity. Qingdao draft is 15 kuai a pint (10 kuai during happy hour) and the kitchen will open soon, if not tomorrow night. Patrons now have a new spot to get COX-style wings and Saddle-style burritos, as well as mini pizzas, while avoiding Sanlitun North’s roving gangs of teenagers, beggars and substance sellers. That alone is reason enough for me to go; we’ll see if others feel the same. (For more on The Rickshaw, check out this interview of Kris.)

I dropped into The Rickshaw on my way home from Torres China’s tenth-anniversary celebration at the Ritz Carlton. The party was from 6 to 10 PM, and I managed to squeeze in at 9:52 PM – yep, it’s been one of those work weeks. That left enough time to chat with Torres North China GM Galia Stern (among the first people I met when I arrived in Beijing way back when), have a glass of wine, and meet Miguel Torres, who ranks among the world’s bigwigs of wine. Congratulations to Torres and good luck on the company’s anniversary party in Shanghai this weekend.

Bummed Out Behind the Bar?

It sounds like a great job – hey, what’s not fun about making drinks and small talk – but bartenders find precious little satisfaction in their work, at least stateside, according to  this article (thanks to M-Dawg for the link). 

Bartending ranked among the 10 least gratifying jobs, with only 26 percent of mixologists surveyed reporting the job as “very satisfying” (laborers, except construction, ranked as the least satisfied, at 21 percent, while clergy and firefighters were at the opposite end of the spectrum, at 87 and 80 percent respectively).

In a way, I guess it’s not surprising that bartenders might be dissatisfied as they have to: 1) listen to many patrons gripe about their jobs and thus start to wonder about their own, 2) handle mafan people like me and my friends, and 3) watch as bar-goers add Sprite to a 100-dollar bottle of wine. Wait, I think I’m getting my countries confused here….