As part of an ongoing vendetta against my liver, Ian Burns – known in these parts as Don Lemmon of The Beijing Beatles, known in Qingdao as head of media outfit Red Star, known to me as fellow neighbor in the Land of Fortune apartment complex – invited me and fellow Beatle John Devlin to the coast for a wine tasting a few weeks ago. That led to two days of heavy eating, drinking and being merry.
Thursday: From chroma to Caol Ila
An afternoon wine tasting at this Italian restaurant was the raison d’etre for the visit. Our panel of six judges faced two scoring options. One: Use an A4-sized sheet with more than a dozen categories, including “chroma”, for each wine to get scores out of 100. Two: Use a small card for each wine and simply write scores out of 20. We prevented a collective aneurysm by choosing option two. While our methodology might not pass muster with the professionals, mostly due to our chatting and sipping, consider them ‘real world’ conditions. I thought the quality of the nearly 20 wines, including a couple from Bulgaria, pretty good and liked the Waitiri Creek Pinot Noir 2007 from New Zealand. I also liked the quiche and meatballs from Cassani.
This place was just a few days from opening, an event I was sorry to miss given I went to the launch of Carnegie’s in Taipei a decade ago, and of Browns, modeled on that Taipei establishment, in Beijing in 2006. The Taipei spot saw nights when my dance moves had me figuratively on fire. The Beijing spot saw one night when management gave me a Flaming Lamborghini for my birthday, accidentally (?) set the table alight, and nearly had me literally on fire. Given that I was wedged waist-high against that table, I almost became a modern-day eunuch by flame. Let’s move along.
Apparently in Qingdao, a six-foot tall Ultraman statue inside the door is a sign of fresh seafood. Grab a stool at the counter or seats in the semi-private rooms, then gobble teppanyaki, sushi, kimchi, stews and the like to your heart’s content. Good Japanese eats that went well with crisp pints of Asahi at rmb20.
Old Jack’s Bar
Burns asked what Beijing bar this place reminded me of and I said the original Phil’s Pub north of Sanlitun Soho. They share a similar size, simple local pub atmosphere and reasonably priced drinks — rmb20 gin tonics at Old Jack’s. Plus, a single squat toilet. It turns out Old Jack knows Phil, something that makes sense in hindsight, since I remember Phil leaving Beijing for several months to help open Q Bar in Qingdao.
We put away a few pints while listening to a band called the
Dalallammas Damallamas play – impromptu and unplugged – songs like “Just the Tip”. (That one concerns neither icebergs nor restaurant gratuities but something that might upset supporters of Planned Parenthood. To assuage such people, perhaps the band could include “Summer of ’69” in future sets.)
My first thought: this place is cool. My second thought: the reinforced concrete ceiling juxtaposed with the antique style lamps and general vibe makes it seem like a bar you might find – if only there were a subterranean entrance – in Neil Gaiman’s “Neverwhere”. My third thought: I want sambuca.
Freeman turned out to be my favorite spot. It’s an earthy place that draws an eclectic crowd and is held together by a long communal table that divides the room between a thick-topped bar on one side and lounge areas on the other. The drink list, on the other hand, is average. Yes, the Kamikaze shots, Tsing-taos and Black Russians do the job, but this place like it should have something special, like a shelf loaded with a dozen rums, or a handful of house cocktails with a “Freeman” theme, or even local fruit wines such as those found at Jam in Beijing.
Team Red Star dropped me off at Housing International for the night and, after internally hemming and hawing for about ten seconds, I decided to find a bar called Room that Burns mentioned was near the hotel. It took me nearly half an hour during which I ate a bag of “Angry Birds” Bugles. (They taste like regular bugles. Bummer.) Room is like a study with a few cubbyholes and years of accumulated wine bottles, CDs and knickknacks. And several comatose people: one guy was passed out, forehead on the bar, for a good 30 minutes before he came to, paid his bill and staggered away.
I liked the Black Russian (rmb30) and enjoyed talking to the amiable bartender. After I ordered a second and final drink, a Jameson’s (single rmb20, double rmb40), the owner came over for a chat. He ended up pouring three sample shots for an impromptu tasting. The last thing I remember is saying I should be in bed before 2 AM, being told it was after 3 AM, having another sip of lovely Lagavulin 16, and making a sudden decision to leave for fear I would otherwise be waking a few hours later with coaster marks on my forehead. Good spot.
Friday: Bloody Long Island
Crowne Plaza Hotel
I arrived fashionably late, though not fashionably attired, for the Red Star staff lunch. The buffet included smoked salmon, pastas, dumplings, California rolls – a typical hotel lineup. The highlight: an Indian buffet that was small in scope, big in taste, and included some delicious naan. I washed down lunch with about a dozen glasses of water.
Red Star HQ
The magazine was holding its annual Music and Art Exposition – MAX – with a jam session from late afternoon to about 9 PM. Red Star has an excellent loft office with (obviously) high ceilings, an open spiral staircase to a half second floor, an area with sofas where you can relax, and a kitchen with — on this day — three kegs of Tsing-tao. Unlike in Beijing, this beer pours with a frothy head and tastes fresh. And that’s at rmb60 per keg. Good stuff. As for MAX, I’d bet that a radio convention has less tuning, although once finished, the bands performed well. I liked the tight version of The Cult’s “She Sells Sanctuary” and that song “Just the Tip” (did I mention it has nothing to do with restaurants?).
A spacious Mediterranean-style restaurant with plenty of seating options (tables, sofas, the bar and semi-private rooms), good thin crust pizzas (from the margarita to the spicy beef to the one with anchovies and capers), decent dirty martinis (rmb35), and funky music. I think we went through about ten pies as we chilled out, chatted and listened to tunes. Why this place didn’t have more patrons is beyond me. Burns also uttered the line of the night after learning La Villa could not make a Bloody Mary due to a lack of tomato juice: “There’s no Bloody Mary in a Long Island!” Does this guy ever stop quoting The Beatles?
Charlie’s / LPG
A quick stop in Charlie’s, which reminded me of a bigger version “Old Jack’s”, then thoughts of crossing the street to ss LPG, which apparently stands for Simon Says Let’s Play Games. Instead I followed the crowd and went – based on one visit – for the tried and true and followed the crowd next door to…
By the end of the night – after blathering about how the spot reminded me of a Neil Gaiman novel; after watching an irate woman accuse my friend of chatting too much with some guy and thus wrecking her plans (“you have a nice shirt and a nice smile but you interrupted my appointment!”); after later trying to help that same guy translate a joke about a house so cold that when you find an ice cube in someone’s bed and it melts, it turns into a fart; after knocking back a final whiskey shot with one of the earliest bar owners in Qingdao — I decided that I was already a regular at this place. And that probably scared management.
Saturday: Ten wines and eight courses
The small restaurant on the thirtieth floor of this place offers an excellent view, including the coast, but is otherwise dire given the cheap decor, the ho-hum eats (highlight: defrosted potato patties and ketchup) and the guy beside me who should have been served his food in a trough rather than on a plate — it is hard to enjoy that view when you are anticipating a fellow diner horking up a loogie. I don’t know the Qingdao food and beverage market, but this feels like a spot that could upgrade its decor, introduce a better menu (not necessarily big one, but a well-thought out and better one) and make a mark on the scene.
We finished the trip with an eight-course, ten-wine lunch at this Italian restaurant. I enjoyed the two white wines very much (apologies now for typos: it was at the end of a long two days). With the I Capitani Greco di Tufo DOCG Serum, I could pick out hazelnuts, baked apple and McIntosh toffee, minerality and touches of licorice and fennel — even if no one else did. The Maso Bastie Traminer 2007 had a floral nose, with peaches, pears, white flowers, and later some spice. Fun stuff. As for the food, we had everything from risotto with porcini mushrooms to cured beef with arugola and Parmesan. My favorite match: grilled Australian beef ternderloin with Tuscan merlot. Unfortunately, we had to bolt for the train, otherwise this would have turned into a six-hour session.
If you get a seat on one of the high-speed rail cars where they have decided to crank up a movie like the Rape of Nanjing, and if your seat is beside a speaker, then you are best off heading to the beverage car, grabbing a booth and finishing off your two-day spree by slowly sipping from a rmb12 can of beer. It’s a good way to ease from an organ-testing Qingdao spree to a more sedate way of life…