Real ale, prohibition cocktails among wealth of new Beijing drinking options
Beijing has a variety of new food and drink options, writes Mark Graham
A back-alley bar that serves real ale, a Prohibition-era- speakeasy themed lounge, a trendy lounge in the arts district and a gourmet restaurant with fabulous views of the Forbidden City are among Beijing's new drinking and dining options.
The grim winter weather and the perpetual thick smog have not dampened the spirits of the capital's nightlife lovers, who have embraced the recently opened bars and restaurants with enthusiasm.
In the case of Janes and Hooch, a two-storey lounge modelled on the kind of louche club that Al Capone would have supplied with liquor during the American booze-ban era of the 1920s, the owners are delighted that business has been brisk from the start.
The format is simple: a smallish, dimly lit bar downstairs that serves cocktails, and an upstairs lounge where customers can share a bottle of bourbon, whisky, gin or rum. It's a club where adults can have a serious conversation, a far cry from karaoke.
The mood music is period jazz and blues, with a smattering of contemporary sounds, chosen by musician, co-owner and cocktail enthusiast Leon Lee.
The name, Janes and Hooch, is derived from slang used during the Prohibition era to describe women and liquor. "It harkens back to a speakeasy, but in a more modern way. We wanted to create stuff that could be shared," says Lee, an American who runs several other Sanlitun-area bars.
"The plan was to draw a tasteful crowd. It's a sexy place, a playful place. The idea of the upstairs lounge is that you buy a bottle and we give you a kit and ice to make cocktails. It is not just for people who are going out to get blasted; we have done it in a refined sort of way."
Meanwhile, Xian, a cavernous basement lounge in the newly opened EAST hotel, hopes to appeal to nouveau riche Beijingers, especially the artists and designers associated with the popular suburban 798 Art District.
"We spent a long time preparing an extensive range of whiskies from all over the world," says hotel manager Michael Faulkner. "Beijing now has a younger, educated crowd who are more discerning and are interested in drinking cocktails and whiskies. I have been here for four years and in that time Beijing has raised its game. It is becoming a truly international city."
In charge of operations is Hong Kong-born Sam Bobertz, who worked previously at the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong and at several Lan Kwai Fong bars. Xian offers a wide range of whiskies, including The Macallan, Isle of Jura, Laphroaig, Aberfeldy and Bruichladdich, and cocktails such as Basic Temptation, made with lemon grass-infused vodka, amaretto and fresh lime.
Also on tap are real ales made by Slowboat, a new boutique brewery in Beijing that distributes its products to bars, clubs, restaurants and embassies. Slow Boat has been well received by fans of unpasteurised and unfiltered beer, and makes an alternative to the ubiquitous Tsingtao and Heineken.
Slow Boat - the name derives from the song On a Slowboat to China - is the brainchild of long-term American resident Chandler Jurinka and brewmaster Daniel Hebert. They have about 12 varieties of beer, from strong stout to light lager. Most can be sampled at the Taproom premises in a hard-to-locate downtown hutong.
The bar is basic, with simple trestle tables, and may not be the best place for a first date. But lovers of craft ale, which can be hard to find in Asia, will not be able to resist going through the beer menu. The Taproom offers trays of samples that include Monkey's Fist IPA, Man-O-War Porter and Dragon Boat Ale.
Says Jurinka: "I think people like coming to the hutongs. It is a way of looking at things from a different angle and, if you have a bar there, it is more unexpected, as it's a bit of a secret. When you come down here, you really see local life, people sitting out on their steps."
The Taproom is a few hutongs away from one of the city's quirkiest bars, a former dog-meat restaurant that has been converted into an establishment that sells beer, coffee cocktails, Aussie meat pies and, oddly, bicycles. Keen cyclist Shannon Bufton and his like-minded Beijing wife, Li Man, decided to combine their loves into a one-stop shop, Serk, where the ground-floor bar offers refreshments and the ceiling displays an array of flashy bicycles, on sale for up to 50,000 yuan (HK$62,000).
Give him a couple of days' notice and the Australian can even arrange bicycle tours, such as a spin around the cultural attractions of the immediate area - the Lama Temple and Confucian Museum are close by - with stops at bars and restaurants. Another option is a full-day ride to the Great Wall.
Says Bufton: "The bar is in an interesting hutong. In summer the street is alive with people. One draw is the roast mutton restaurants; a number of famous ones are located here. A lot of people come by to check us out, have a beer or soft drink, and enjoy the atmosphere."
A world away, just across from the Forbidden City, is the Brian McKenna @ the Courtyard restaurant. The venue looks out over the moat towards the imposing vermillion walls of the former imperial abode. Despite its fabulous view, the restaurant has drifted off foodies' radar in recent years.
Irishman McKenna, who has been working in Michelin-starred kitchens since his teens, plans to lure back discerning gourmets by serving wine-paired menus that showcase his molecular-gastronomy skills. The chef arrived in the city five years ago, dazzling diners at the Blu Lobster in the Shangri-La hotel.
"Food is my life; I am passionate about it," says McKenna, a burly individual who was once a top-level amateur boxer. "This isn't a restaurant to come for a meal, it is a place to come for an experience. The philosophy here is that people want to go out and be entertained."
To ensure the experience is exclusive and intimate, the Courtyard will have just nine tables, most of which will take in the night-time view. Diners will be steered towards the tasting menu, which pairs wines with dishes such as tempura of crab with lemon grass bubbles, and pan-roasted salmon with ginger-scented lentils and grilled foie gras.
McKenna is renowned for visual tricks. The "Beef and Bone" dish features a piece of tenderloin that has been poached for 10 hours, then arranged on the plate to look like a dish of scallops.
A roasted chicken is presented for inspection, then divided up into a variety of combinations that include breast accompanied by risotto and drumsticks served with gratinated Parmesan cheese.
The house speciality dessert is a chocolate terracotta warrior filled with various orange-flavoured liquids, and set in a sea of orange and chocolate. It is likely to be present on all menus.
Once the new-look Courtyard has settled in, the chef-entrepreneur plans to focus on other restaurant projects in the capital, including the Pudding Bar, in the nightlife zone of Sanlitun, and a Peking Duck restaurant.
He says: "I have fallen in love with Beijing and I think it is ready for this kind of food. There are a million good things here and a few bad things - the pollution is disgraceful but I will never be able to do anything about it apart from leave, and I don't want to."