Saturday, February 23, 2008

The best beer deal in Harbin

I've just spent a few days up in Harbin, capital of Heilongjiang Province (the former Manchuria), far to the north-east (the city is, I think, just a smidge further north than the northernmost border of Outer Mongolia - so, it's pretty much the edge of Siberia: very bleak, very cold; the huge Songhua River freezes solid for 5 or 6 months of the year).

It is, in many ways, a great city: friendly people, characterful architecture (there's long been a strong Russian influence there), lots of sightseeing attractions round about. However, restaurants are not nearly as thick on the ground as in Beijing, and most of them suck mightily (I had the second worst jiaozi of my life there on this trip - and it's hard to get jiaozi wrong!). If there are any foreigner-friendly bars, they are nowhere near the city centre where we stayed (perhaps the University district would be a better bet?). We only found one (well, there were a few others, but they were really more coffee shops), and that, though quite charming in its way, was dauntingly expensive - 20 kuai for a third of a litre of draught beer, at least 35 or 40 for any spirit (and extra for the mixers). We really are spoiled in Beijing; in just about every other city I've been to in China (and I've been to quite a lot now), foreigner bars are a rarity, and almost invariably slightly 'upmarket' (even if they're dives!); you hardly ever find the bog-standard drinking dens with which Beijing still - mercifully - abounds: places where you can get a bottle of local beer (or a full half litre of draught) for 10-20 kuai, shooters for 10, mixed drinks for 25 or 30.

So, what to do?

Well, we went to Tatoc's. Tatoc's has a great location just off the main drag of Zhongyang Dajie. It invites you in with its cosy cellar ambience and its New York-style green awning over the entrance steps. It discourages you with the raucous Russian pop music blasting up those steps to try to attract the attention of passers-by; but we got over our distaste for that: it's much quieter inside (although they did play the same - rather short - compilation album of 60s and 70s American and UK folk-pop hits over and over and over again, which soon became rather wearing). The interior is actually quite beguiling: lots of dark wood and green leather bench seats, and the place is fairly brimming with antiques and oddball curios.

Tatoc's is one of the city's 'Russian' restaurants. There are fewer of these now than in the past; they're almost invariably run entirely by Chinese, and their conception of Russian food is at best a little sketchy. The Russian restaurants in Beijing are amongst my favourites, but the ones in Harbin offer a dining experience more akin to Russian Roulette. Old man Tatoc, who founded this place early last century, would probably be turning in his grave if he could see what they are now doing to his beloved cuisine of the Caucasus. We tried a meal there on our first night. It was well up there amongst the foulest dishes that have ever been served to me. Despite being ravenous after a long day of sightseeing in icy winds, I left half of it on my plate (and was for a long time concerned that I would soon be leaving the other half in a toilet bowl; although that fear proved unfounded).

However, my companions and I went back the following night. And the night after that. We didn't like to protest too robustly to the charming staff that their food was disgusting, but we did make a point of not ordering any more of it. No, we went solely for the beer. That's a 1.5 litre jug of beer in the picture. Very good draught beer (Harbin beer is, by some margin, the best in China). And only 18 kuai - bargain.

I would quite happily have stayed there from 7pm till 1am every night - but my companions lobbied for more variety in our choice of drinking venue. And the staff - rarely bothered by any customers other than us - were clearly restive to close up by 10 o'clock or so.

Keep this in mind, though, as a 'top tip' for a beer-drinking venue the next time you're in Harbin.

Footnote: They appear to sell vodka by the bottle for only 3 or 4 times as much as a single glass. The cheapest (Russian) brand - the ominously named AK-47 - is only about 50 or 60 kuai. Needless to say, they didn't have any. Against our better judgement, we accepted a Chinese substitute - the even less appealingly named Soffinaya Ante (Anti??) Vodka (product of the Anhui Ante Biological Chemistry Co., Ltd.): surprisingly non-vile, but also disappointingly short on alcoholic kick. Well, at least we lived to tell the tale.

Further Footnote: On reflection, I really think that might have been a TWO litre jug of beer!

1 comment:

Froog said...

A bizarre aside.

One of the songs on their "folk hits of the 70s" CD at this place was Me And You And A Dog Named Boo.

Now, this seemed dreadfully familiar to me - but I wondered if this deja vu sensation might just have been produced by the fact that I heard it 15 or 20 times while I was there. Then I wondered if it was one of the records in my parents' singles collections (desperately middle of the road in their tastes, but this music was still utterly fascinating to me as a small child, and I would spend hours playing them on our 'gramophone'). No, I'm pretty sure not..... I played those records so often, I can still remember pretty much every last one of them very clearly.

I had to resort to Wikipedia to find the answer. It was a hit in the UK in the early 1970s, and happened to be the last song played over the tannoy at Edgar Street, Hereford United's football ground, just before their famous victory over Newcastle in an FA Cup 3rd Round replay. That was the first football match I ever went to (I was very young). Hereford was the city of my birth, and I spent most of my childhood living in Monmouth, not too far away - so Hereford Utd was the team I supported as a kid. And they did enjoy a remarkable run of success through the mid-70s. For a couple of years I had a season ticket, and would go almost every Saturday with my Dad.

Some bright spark got the notion that that song had brought us good luck in the Newcastle game, and so it became an unvarying tradition - still observed to this day, I believe - that it is always played just before the kick-off at home games. That would explain why it is so etched in the deep recesses of my brain - having heard it 30 or 40 or 50 times as a kid!

Alas, the musical talisman doesn't seem to have worked. Hereford were never likely to top that momentous achievement. And for the past 30 years, their record has been almost unrelentingly dismal.... they're a non-league side again now.