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Bagels, pork knuckles and Imperial Russia: Must Try Series with Julian Tavalin

julian tavalin of tavalin bagels beijing china


The tasty bagels at Tavalin have inspired a resurrection of the Must Tries Series, where I ask people in the Beijing food and beverage business for picks from their own menus and from other places about town. Julian Tavalin, part of the team behind Tavalin Bagels, reveals his favorite bagel, his top spots for pork knuckles, pizza and steak, and why he’d like to have Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii as a customer.


You guys offer more than 10 kinds of bagels. What is the “must try” bagel on the menu?

Every bagel has at one point or another been my favorite, however the “everything bagel” has to be the one that I have loved the longest. Incidentally, this creates some confusion when people ask me “which is the best one” or “which one is the most popular” and I say “everything”—after which they usually roll their eyeballs in disgust thinking that I am taking the piss. I am not sure where the term “everything bagel” comes from, but when I was a kid it meant that the bagel had all the flavors they put on top. In our case it’s garlic, onion, sesame and sea salt. I enjoy it because I can never decide on one topping, so with this one you don’t miss out on any of them. The everything bagel is priced the same as the others at RMB10.

What is the “must try” topping?

Tavalin Bagels used to be in my tiny Sanlitun apartment when we first started. As silly as it might sound I hadn’t actually tried everything on the menu three weeks in. At the time we were only a three-day-a-week delivery service and one day very early on we ended up producing an extra rosemary and garlic cream cheese by accident. I remember discovering it in the fridge and feeling like I should eat some of it so it didn’t go and because I hadn’t tried it yet. I ate the entire 250-gram tub that evening on stale bagels. Since then it’s been my favorite. It’s rmb25 per tub or rmb10 to add it to a bagel.

What are three “must try” foods or drinks you’ve had at other places in Beijing?

Every so often I seek out the pork knuckle (schwinehaxe) at the Paulaner Brauhaus at the Kempinski. It was the first place I’d ever had the Bavarian dish, and it rarely disappoints.

To satisfy a pizza craving I’ll usually go to the Kro’s Nest. Their pizza reminds me most of the pizza that I grew up with, the toppings are generous and I feel like I’m getting what I paid for.

And recently I’ve been treating myself to steaks at O’Steak if I feel I deserve it. I can’t tell if their service is appalling or if I just happen to be in a lousy mood every time I go in there but either way I really enjoy their 220-gram steak with black pepper sauce and ANY other sauce on the menu. They also have rmb10 pastis there, which I know is not for everybody but I love the stuff and would pay double for it in a heartbeat.

Bonus question: If you could have anyone famous stop by the bagel shop, who would you choose and why? 

If the person can be an historical figure it would have to be Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii at the moment. This guy was commissioned by Czar Nicholas II to take color photographs of imperial Russia in the early 1900s and I came across an article about the photos on last week. I loved the photos so much I wanted to see more, and luckily the Library of Congress bought the entire collection in the 1940s and has it on their website for public viewing and use so you can see the entire 2000-plus photo collection (see this link).

Strangely enough I saw my mom had posted about the same guy on Facebook just today—neither of us knew the other had seen the same article. If you’d asked me two weeks ago which famous person I’d like to see at the bagel shop I’m sure it wouldn’t be so obscure, however I have some specific questions I’d like to ask the photographer as I’ve really enjoyed looking at his photos over the past week and can’t stop thinking about him—incidentally some of them I’d seen before and had no idea they were from the same photographer.

He invented a breakthrough way of photographing color, where he would take three photos of the same thing, while holding three color lenses (red, green, blue) in front of his camera. Then he’d take the black and white negatives and project them through the same colored filters. When the images were lined up they created a really amazing color effect (see here). Anyway, I’d like to ask him about the different kind of people he encountered in Imperial Russia and why he decided to leave for Western Europe after the Bolshevik Revolution even though they offered him a professorship, and a few more questions about his subject matter.

On a less pretentious note I’d also like to meet Leonardo DiCaprio for what it’s worth. I just saw The Wolf of Wall Street and I thought he was really good in it. I’ve been enjoying his movies recently, and it’s been a pleasure to literally watch him grow up on the screen. From my perspective he started as a cheesy teen heartthrob and has become a great actor. Little known fact: he moved out of his mom’s house just a couple months before Titanic was released. Crazy stuff.

See also:

Tavalin’s rec? Everything bagel with rosemary cream cheese.


Sips & bites: McKenna’s big chocolate surprise, Modo’s tightrope walk, City Weekend’s new campaign

terra cotta

Imagine this guy is six-feet-tall, made of chocolate and hiding a chef.


Chef Brian McKenna has revitalized former top restaurant The Courtyard in just over a year and no menu item has received more accolades than the terracotta warrior-shaped chocolates he serves for dessert. McKenna had an even bigger surprise for a recent bachelorette party at the restaurant when his staff rolled out a life-sized chocolate warrior.

Guests went from surprised to ecstatic as they converged on the treat in a sweet frenzy. But it ended abruptly — and an inch of chocolate — when they found a giggling McKenna underneath.

Performance art!” he shouted as a woman “tsk tsk-ed” him. “Its the modern-day equivalent of jumping out of a birthday cake. Except it was me. Under eighty kilos of chocolate. Chocolate is my armor!”

One women called the move “cutting edge” but was surprised to find her piece of chocolate “earthy, even a bit funky“. Ever mysterious, McKenna simply said, “Maybe that wasn’t completely chocolate”.

After being forced to remove the second floor of Modo last year on orders from property management at Swire Sanlitun Village, the owners of this restaurant-turned-deli face a new challenge: getting rid of the first floor. New and stricter fire safety rules mean Alex Molina and Daniel Urdaneta will have to reinvent their space for the second time in just over a year.

Undaunted, the pair plan to hang chairs and tables from the ceiling on chains. Customers will be maneuvered from the door to their seats via a system of wires and pulleys. And the staff will take and deliver orders while riding unicycles along a series of tightropes. Urdaneta is pondering the use of catapults to get dishes to tables.

“It’s complicated, but we can make it work,” says Molina. “But if they order us to remove the ceiling, then we plan to go jet-pack.”

Not bar or restaurant news but nonetheless intriguing: City Weekend is putting a spin on its well-known “reader-powered” marketing strategy by introducing a charity program it calls “breeder-powered“, according to an inside source. (In case you think that source is a certain editor who recently left the magazine and maybe no longer cares what she says, it’s not. Really. Okay, it probably isn’t.).

“Many expatriates in Beijing take their sperm banks back home for granted,” says the source. “But here in Beijing, they remain a luxury, particularly among migrant workers. We plan to change that.”

Along with fundraisers to help build a brand-spanking new facility, City Weekend will support the project with free bilingual ads, company-branded rubber gloves and deposit cups, and ‘stimulating’ literature, including a selection of the magazine’s hottest ‘Fashionista’ spreads. Said the source, “I’m from Vermont so I’m perfectly positioned to know what excites migrant workers.”

The campaign should be welcomed given such workers already hold City Weekend in high esteem for conveniently leaving stacks of magazines citywide that can be easily hauled to nearby recycling centers and converted to much-needed spending money.

The charity campaign is just one of many organized by City Weekend, including the Feeder-Powered Canned Food Project, the Bleeder-Powered Blood Donation Drive and the Kneader-Powered Charity Bake Sale.

And in case you haven’t guessed — and if you haven’t, I hope it’s because you’ve been guzzling baijiu — this is an April Fools’ Day post. Kudos to McKenna, Molina and Urdaneta for their perseverance and success over the past year.

Previous April Fool posts:

See the April Fool’s posts at sibling blog Grape Wall of China here.

Head of the glass: 元15 wine happy hour at Pinotage

rmb15 south africa wine by the glass deal at pinotage restaurand and wine bar beijing china

The Sanlitun Soho branch of Pinotage is offering good value for wine drinkers, with eight South African options available at 元15 per glass. The deal runs 5 PM to 7 PM, Monday to Friday.

Expect more changes in coming weeks, with the weekend brunch shifting from a la carte to buffet and the addition of three home brews — two lagers and a wheat — being made at the Shunyi location. Also, lunch fans can get two courses at rmb88 or three courses at rmb108, including cappuccino, beer or juice. The options include five starters, five mains and four desserts — word is the ostrich burger is popular.

The four reds and four whites covered by the happy hour deal:

  • Zidela Sauvignon Blanc
  • Simonsvlei Sauvignon Blanc
  • Simonsvlei Chardonnay
  • Boland Chenin-Sauvignon Blanc
  • Zidela Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Zidela Shiraz
  • Simonsvlei Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Simonsvlei Shiraz

Pinotage also has dozens of other options from among the wines it imports or stocks from other distributors. And if seek a post-work snack, one option is the boerewors, a farmer’s sausage done in a roll “hot dog style”.

Exit interview: City Weekend’s Sienna Parulis-Cook on angry managers, Hello Kitty, track suits and more

sienna parulis-cook

She started as an intern and finished as managing editor Sienna Parulis-Cook has spent most of the past nine years in Beijing eating and drinking, laughing and crying, and working at City Weekend. As she heads off into a somewhat hazy sunset, I asked her a few questions.

What was the worst response to a bar or restaurant review during your time as editor? Follow-up: Have you ever had to rough up any chefs?

Weirdly enough, the only bad responses I got were to good reviews, not bad ones! I have never had someone yell at me for any one-, two- or three-star reviews.

However, I received some incredibly nasty emails from the manager of Sadler Cantina, the basement restaurant at now-closed Sadler in Ch’ienmen. I gave the restaurant four stars out of five and paid hearty compliments to the food [see here]. The manager said I was “unprofessional” and that I should be fired from my job because I had remarked that the service was slow. We had to wait an hour between courses, and my dinner date joked about how they were giving new meaning to the “slow food movement.”

Another time I wrote what I considered to be a rave review of a trendy Sanlitun bar, only to get a long, angry email from one of the owners ranting about how I had failed to understand their concept and the originality of their decision to use Edison light bulbs, just like EVERY Sanlitun venue that has opened or been renovated since 2011. I never went back there, although I had really liked it and intended on becoming a regular.

And no, I have never roughed up any chefs! Chefs are pretty awesome in general. I nominated so many amazing Beijing chefs for this year’s Readers’ Choice Awards [voting starts here on April 1], and honestly, honestly, I-don’t-even-work-at-City-Weekend-anymore believe they all deserve to win.

Is it true that you and Julian Tavalin of Tavalin Bagels were in the same primary school class in Vermont? If so, how often did he get expelled?

True! Julian and I went to third, fourth and fifth grades together at a tiny school called The Neighborhood Schoolhouse in Brattleboro, Vermont. No one ever got expelled, because basically all we did there was talk about our feelings and play in the woods. We only had math class once a week, where we were forced to play a math-related board game. It was the best school ever.

What’s the Beijing street food you will miss the most (and why)?

Three a.m malatang with Sarah Ting-Ting. I will miss the experience of eating it more than the actual food, although kuanfen dipped in majiang is pretty awesome. I am really impressed that I have never gotten sick from it!

You’re from Vermont and don’t know the TV show Newhart. How is that possible? Isn’t that like being from Hawaii and not knowing Magnum P.I. or Hawaii Five-0?

Maybe they only showed it in Canada?

What three restaurants do think most changed the Beijing scene while you were here?

Maison Boulud. It didn’t last five years, and I only ate there twice, but I think both its life and its untimely demise were very meaningful. It was such a destination, for the food and for the celebrity chef name and for the location. I read a fun Somerset Maugham essay about an uncomfortable dinner party he went to at the Legation Quarter in Beijing in 1919, and I like the idea that one could have a similarly socially awkward dinner in the exact same place in 2009.

The closure also says a lot about how the reality of Beijing is much different now than during the pre-financial crisis, pre-austerity measures, Olympic days. But I am pretty sure what killed MB and every other restaurant in Ch’ienmen 23 was just how terribly inconvenient it was to get there — I never once had a single taxi driver who believed me that there were restaurants there — and to ever leave! I’m sure the restaurant would do very well around Sanlitun or Lido or the CBD.

SALT. I interviewed Gaby Alves as a City Weekend intern, back when SALT was still under construction. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t know Alameda in its early days and never went to Garden of Delights, but I think SALT is what kicked off “contemporary cuisine” in Beijing and inspired a lot of development in the dining scene here.

Hatsune. I wasn’t in Beijing yet when the first Hatsune opened, but I did first eat there in 2005 and used to go to the original Guanghua Lu location for any special occasion during my first years in the city. I feel like it was one of the first really nice places you would want to get dressed up to go to, and be willing to spend a bit more at because you knew you’d be getting food and service up to Western standards. I don’t go there very often anymore since the restaurant selection has increased so dramatically in Beijing, but I do think it raised standards here. And the fact it opened 12 years ago and is still trendy and relevant is pretty amazing when you think of all the places that didn’t make it, including Maison Boulud and SALT!

You’re a humongous Hello Kitty fan. Let’s say you had to vote either Hello Kitty or the world’s last surviving panda off the island, which one would you choose?

What good is only one panda? The species would already be doomed. [That's some Neighborhood Schoolhouse-style logic right there, folks!] On the other hand, someone recently pointed out to me that there are so many Hello Kitties that one fewer wouldn’t make a difference.

You tried some Chinese wines while you lived here. Which one was your favorite?

I think my favorite would have to be the wine you and I drank out of the barrels at Silver Heights vineyard in Ningxia. We were down in the wine cellar, surrounded by barrels, and the winemakers were there, and it was only 10 a.m. The wine itself was very good, but it’s the whole experience that made the taste unforgettable.

In terms of wine I would want to drink at home or with dinner, my favorite has been the Chardonnay made by the Pernod Ricard people at Domaine Helan Mountain, also in Ningxia. It has really nice vanilla notes and is the best Chinese white wine I’ve had.

Remember that time at Frank’s Place when that guy was making inappropriate remarks? How uncomfortable was that, eh?

I think you are referring to the guy from the SALT five-year anniversary party, whom I actually thought was funny. I was making fun of his Essex accent, which is always a good time. As far as creepy-men-in-bars go, he was really alright. Maybe he got creepier when we went downstairs to Frank’s, but I think you picked up on that a lot more than I did! [Obviously I am unaware of the continuum of creepiness out there.]

Top three things you will miss about Beijing and one thing you won’t?

My friends, massages, feeling like a celebrity. I will not miss that same conversation I’ve had with every single taxi driver in Beijing about where I’m from, how long I’ve been here, what I do and if I intend to marry a Chinese man.

This isn’t a question but a statement: Can I tell you how fully completely utterly and totally devastated I am that you never asked me to do the Fashionista spread? I could do a dozen of them just by drawing on my extensive Tommy Bahamas shirt collection. Let’s move on.

Ha! Well I’m sure it could be arranged. How would you feel about wearing a track suit?

Speaking of that, is it true fellow City Weekenders Lee Mack and Blake Stone-Banks regularly go commando while wearing tight-fitting track suits in the office?

Yes. Every day.

Any parting advice for new arrivals and those staying behind?

New arrivals: LEARN CHINESE! It makes everything a million times easier. Also, it is truly rude to live in a country for many years and not bother to even try learning the language. If Chinese is too hard, maybe you should try a country with an easier language. I met a Kiwi girl here back in 2009 who was proud that after four years she couldn’t even direct a taxi. She actually bragged about it to me and my Chinese coworker, and I was really, really embarrassed to be a foreigner.

Staying behind: Take so much advantage of the DVDs and illegal downloading opportunities. They actually block those torrent websites in countries you never thought blocked any websites. Watch every TV show ever made. [Newhart!] I’ve been working on that project for years and somehow still find new, amazing things to watch. It also helps to keep you connected to the Western world in many ways.

Top rum: Carson Xie wins Bacardi cocktail contest on Great Wall

carson xie bacardi cocktail competition in beijing china pic by weber shandwick


Holy Chang Cheng, Batman! Carson Xie of Park Hyatt Shanghai received his award as winner of the Bacardi Legacy Cocktail Competition at Juyongguan Great Wall last night as five lights beamed the company’s bat logo into the sky. That doesn’t happen every day.

Eleven bartenders — hailing from Beijing, Chengdu, Chongqing, Guangzhou, Tianjin, Shanghai and Xiamen — competed in the finals at Commune by the Great Wall. Xie won with a drink called Original Connection. Tony Han from Ron Lounge in Chengdu took second with Bat Glory while Kevin Wang from 2nd Floor in Tianjin placed third with Bacardi Spirit. Xie will now go to the finals in Moscow.

bacardi legacy cocktail competition at great wall in beijing china 2 pic by webber shandwick bacardi legacy cocktail competition at great wall in beijing china pic by weber shandwick