Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Froog Bar Awards - 2008

Time again for my year-end roundup of the best and worst that Beijing has to offer in the bar & music scene.

I find, in fact, that in many categories my thoughts are quite unchanged from last year. There have been scores of new bars opening in Beijing this year, but I haven't tried most of them, and am unlikely to do so. Most of those that I have tried suck most mightily. Perhaps I am a person of rather fixed habits (although I'd prefer to think of it as a case of my being a person of clear judgment and robust loyalty: once I've found a place I like, I stick to it.)

Anyway, to mix things up a bit this year, I've added some new or modified categories - highlighted in red.

Best Live Music Venue

Winner: 2 Kolegas

Runners-up: MAO Live House and Jiangjinjiu

(Last year I had a separate category for the smaller music bars, but that seemed a bit of an extravagant and superfluous distinction, so I've dropped it this year. Amongst the other contenders, Room 101, alas, did not survive the year, Salud and the Stone Boat were banned from having music for a number of months [bloody Olympics!], and - while I'm delighted to learn that it's still soldiering on - I haven't actually been to the tiny and obscure What Bar in 2 or 3 years. Jianghu, alas, is not what it once was. And Yugong Yishan, as I have bewailed often, is just shite. Club 13 is too far away to be on my radar very often. MAO is still far-and-away the best venue for rock'n'roll - great ambience, great sound system - but gets dropped from the top spot this year because of its overpriced beer and its infuriatingly haphazard scheduling.)

Worst Music Bar

Winner: New Get Lucky

Runners-up: D-22, Guitar Bar

(No changes here!!)

Best Gig Of The Year

Winner: Blues harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite and the Alex Wilson Band at Cheers in January.

(His Sunday afternoon spot at Jianghu was quite magical, but really more of an intimate fireside chat than a show. Cheers is an ideal space for the blues - small, dark, smoky - and the performance that night just rocked. I saw all their performances here in Beijing, and that was way the best.)

(Very close) Runner-up: The stonking 2 Kolegas 3rd Anniversary Show at the beginning of June (after which I lost the hearing in my right ear for a couple of days!).

Worst Gig Of The Year

Winner: A toss-up between the dire White show at D-22 at the start of this month and the Elevator Music Hell that was last week's Ruins/Zhou Yunshan gig at Yugong Yishan.

Best Bar Food

Winner: Luga's

(Last year's winner Saddle now re-branded, but almost identical; in fact, improved in many ways - the burritos are fantastic value and the burger is one of the best in town).

Runner-up: Luga's Villa

(I've found the food a bit spotty in Luga's new - much grander - place around the corner, and the 'authentic Mexican' dishes are mostly rather a disappointment. The portions, however, are HUGE: the burger and the fajitas are popular choices. I was reluctantly prepared to include The Den as a runner-up last year, but the place is in a nosedive, in my opinion: I never liked it much, but the booze, the food, the service, and the decor have all taken a turn for the worse this year.)

Most Overrated Bar Food

Winner: The Tree

Runner-up: There are no runners-up in this category. The Tree is the only place I can think of that has built up such a ridiculously overblown, undeserved reputation for its food. (Once again, no change this year.)

Best Place To Drink While Eating

Winner: White Nights

(Best of the cheap Russian joints these days, I think [though how I miss the old Traktirr!]: the food is hearty; they have an accepting attitude towards people who want to drink more than eat; the draft beer is usually pretty good and not too expensive; the bottled Baltika beer is exellent; and then there's the vodka....)

(Very close) Runner-up: BiteAPitta

(No changes from last year here. Kro's Nest makes the best pizzas in town, but the place lacks charm as a bar. The service is all over the place at the best of times, and on their "cheap beer Tuesdays" they get completely overwhelmed: you can wait an hour to get your food or a drink. I hear very good things about Pyro Pizza - but it's way out in Haidian, so I'm afraid it's highly unlikely that I'll ever go there.)

Best Place To Go For A Cocktail

Winner: Reef

(Especially if one of my friends has been allowed behind the bar to mix the drinks.)

Runner-up: 12 Square Metres

(I'm not really that much of a 'cocktail person'. Most of the places in this town that fancy themselves as 'cocktail bars' are outrageously overpriced, and don't in fact make very good cocktails. Q is the one honourable exception [on the latter point, at least], but it's still ridiculously f***ing expensive, and I don't like the clientele. If you want a decent cocktail that won't cost you an arm and a leg, you should stick to one of these cosy neighbourhood bars on Nanluoguxiang, I say.)

Best Place For Sitting Outside
(Category suspended - because of the bloody Olympics. Sitting outside on the street was banned almost everywhere in Beijing during the summer months, and that ban seems to have become permanent on Nanluoguxiang [probably a good and necessary thing, since the street is so busy these days]; Chen at Reef has got rid of his outdoor furniture, alas. Roof terraces were also supposed to have been banned, but that wasn't actually put into effect - or, if it was, it wasn't enforced. However, thanks to the over-zealous weather management by the authorities here, we had an absolutely dreadful summer in the lead-up to the Olympics anyway: there was not much sitting outside to be done this year.)

Most Pointless New Bar
(rather than Worst New Bar or Most Disappointing New Bar, as we had last year; so many of these new places are somewhere beyond merely bad, and have never raised any hopes to disappoint)

Winner: Lugar's

(A would-be 'upmarket', very expensive Taiwanese whisky/cocktail/wine bar - hidden away in an oscure, unfashionable hutong. There's dumb, there's unfathomably dumb, and then there's this. [Not to be confused with Luga's, of course!])

Runners-up: Nearby The Tree and Drei Kronen and Tsingtao Beer Palace

(Nearby The Tree tries to trade on the popularity of its parent bar The Tree, but is completely dissimilar - and conspicuously fails to draw any customers at all. Drei Kronen is a cavernous and charmless German brewhouse which conspicuously fails to draw any customers. And a Tsingtao theme bar?? What kind of monstrous, idiotic hubris is that??)

'Sign of Desperation' Of The Year

Winner: Nearby The Tree giving away FREE BEER for a month, and still not attracting very many customers.

Runner-up: Drei Kronen giving away scads of free beer vouchers, and still not attracting very many customers.

Foot-Shooting Of The Year

Winner: The steadily degenerating Rickshaw's batty decision to impose a (secret) 15% surcharge on everything during the Olympic month of August - a policy which resulted in it being almost entirely deserted that month.

Runner-Up: Any one of a number of daft and custom-harming ideas that contributed to Room 101's demise, though the leading contender would surely have to be the decision to scrap the enormously popular midnight-1am 'happy hour'.

Redemption Of The Year

Winner: Room 101, which made a pretty dismal start 15 months ago, but was a really great little bar for the first half of this year.

Runner-up: D-22 - which, despite still sucking rather as a music venue, has managed to transform itself into a pretty darned good bar (it's the staff that make all the difference).

Bar Which Has Deteriorated Most This Year

Winner: The Den

Runner-Up: Rickshaw

Worst Bar

Winner: Centro

Runner-up: Paddy O'Shea's

(D-22 and The Tree are so much improved this year that they drop out of contention in this category, allowing the foul Centro to reclaim its rightful - almost unchallengeable - place at the top. Paddy's is also somewhat improved, I found on a recent visit; but it's still appalling.)

Most Overrated Bar

Winner: Ichikura

(Yes, they have a very nice selection of whiskies. Yes, the head barman is very knowledgeable and helpful. But it's way too expensive. They serve the whisky in sherry schooners - what the fuck? And that business with sculpting your ice into a golf ball is just tedious. I've had at least half a dozen people recommend this place to me this year - but I just do not get the point.)

Runners-up: Centro, Q

(As ever....)

Most Sadly Missed Departures

Winner: Room 101

(My most regular - at times, almost daily - haunt for the first 9 months of this year.)

Runner-up: The Sunset Grill - better known as Sammy's, a true dive bar!

Party Of The Year

Winner: The Jack Daniel's Night at Room 101 in April

Runner-Up: My birthday party at Salud in October (only modesty prevents me from putting this first; we certainly had better music at this one!); also, the Olympic Opening Ceremony in Room 101

Best Barperson/Bar Owner

Winner: Li Mei, of 12 Square Metres

(A charming lady, who works with remarkable thoroughness and efficiency behind that cramped bar - and she mixes some pretty nice drinks too.)

Runner-up: That new guy at Salud

(I never get around to asking his name, but he's friendly and fast - and he always gives me the most ridiculously generous free pours of whisky. [Later, much later, I gathered that his name was Bo Wen - or "Bowen"?? - but, sadly, he quit the place half-way through 2009.)

Most Promising New Bar
(rather than Best New Bar, as we had last year; the jury is still out on these places...)

Winner: Luga's Villa

Runner-up: Ned's

Bar of the Year
(rather than Best Bar, as we had last year: my personal favourites are unlikely to change much year by year, so I wanted a category title that was a little more in touch with the shifting zeitgeist)

Winner: Salud

(I fear it is now in danger of becoming rather a victim of its own success: it seems to be becoming impossible to have a party anywhere else. And in this year of so many departures, it seems as though scarcely a week, scarcely a day goes by without a leaving party of some sort there.)

Runner-up: Room 101

(It would have claimed the top spot if it had survived: it was a central part of my life for 8 or 9 months.)

So, here we are once again: my picks of the year. Any comments, complaints, additions, suggestions?

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

It's only fair to warn you, ladies....

Blue Frog partly redeemed?

I finally managed to round up a posse to test the burgers at Blue Frog this week, and.....

Well, they might just be the best burgers in Beijing.

My companions were all American, and thus apt to be hyper-critical in the matter of burgers: they restrained their enthusiasm, and would only concede that the burgers were very good "for China". Me, I thought they were way the best I've had here - or anywhere, for quite a long time. (I was throwing up much of the rest of that night, but - since my friends were all fine - I must assume that was down to a bug I picked up somewhere else... or perhaps just the blowback from the cumulative gluttony of the last few days.)

There are still problems with the place. It is now attracting a decent crowd (though perhaps only on Mondays?), at least, but.... the music was slightly less dreadful than on my last visit, but still crashingly inappropriate for that sort of venue (rather '80s disco-ey) and way too loud. It's still a fucking stupid name. The recurring blue theme in the decor is tacky and tedious. The draught beer was undrinkably foul. The cocktails are severely uninspiring. And the service is still a bit haphazard (although it looks as though they may have canned all the people I encountered there last time; and they now have a friendly and attentive English manager doing his best to keep things on track): we must have been served by 3 or 4 different people in all; and it really should not take 20 minutes to deliver a burger at the fairly rare end of the spectrum (they weren't that busy).

As for the burgers themselves, they're pretty darned big, the meat and consistency are excellent, and it's nice that they offer you a choice of how you want them cooked - and do it right (unique for Beijing, in my experience). On the other hand, the salads and relishes are a bit disappointing, and the buns (as seems to be inevitable in Beijing) have that nasty hint of sweetness about them.

The allure of a fine burger might possibly tempt me there just occasionally on a Monday night. But it will be a trial to endure all the other irritations just for sake of a slab of good ground beef.

And I shall feel ashamed of myself. This place really does not deserve to prosper - the prices are just ridiculous. A bog-standard burger ought to be priced at around 30-40 kuai. A really good 'gourmet' burger might be worth 50 or 60 kuai. 80 kuai is just preposterous! Their prices across the board are 1.5 to 2 times higher than most of their competition. In these meltdowny times, surely that can't be viable?

And, as the standard-bearer of the accursed Shanghai-ification of our city, Blue Frog should be boycotted by all decent, right-thinking people. (Except on Mondays, maybe......) Are you with me, brothers and sisters??

The final part of my Burger Review Of Beijing will have to wait until the New Year....

Bad taste quip of the season

Overheard in a bar the other day, from a fellow holiday over-indulger:

"Turkey has done more harm to me than to Armenia."

Monday, December 29, 2008

That was the year that was

Time, I think, to revisit the New Year's resolutions I set for myself last year. My success in adhering to them was - as you might have expected - rather mixed.

I think I need to repeat all of these for the coming year, and try a bit harder on some of them.

1) I am going to renounce Tsingtao beer
[Hmmm, well, as I predicted a year ago, finding a suitable replacement was hard. I'm not ready to drink gin & tonics all the time. And the only (affordable) Guinness out here is the slightly sweet bottled 'Export' - again, a nice change of pace occasionally, but not a regular drink. The sudden proliferation of draught Stella in this town has done some damage to my waistline (and my wallet) this year: I need to restrain myself from making that my habitual drink (it had become so for quite a while, at the now-defunct Room 101). I did manage to - very nearly - renounce the vile Tsingtao for 3 or 4 months. I think the Koryo Tours office party at the beginning of March was the start of my fall from grace with this one: they were giving the stuff away FREE and it seemed churlish to refuse. After that, I slowly slid back into the habit of - occasionally - buying it in bars. My consumption of Tsingtao has at least been much, much reduced this year. That's definitely progress. Moreover, we are finally seeing the emergence of some good beer alternatives: Baltica at Jianghu, Stella at Luga's Villa and the Bell & Drum, VB at Ned's, Cooper's at 12 Sq M, and cans of Asahi at select 7/11s and even a few xiaomaibu. And the Pool Bar has recently introduced Harbin Beer (crucially, at the same price as Tsingtao; everywhere else it is - off-puttingly - just a little more expensive)...... so maybe I can make another push for complete Tsingtao-abstinence in 2009. YES - I can, I will!]

2) I am not going to drink White Russians any more
(Other than on special occasions, of course; or when I have a particularly scratchy throat..... )
[Well, I kept to that one pretty well. It is essentially a winter indulgence, I think. And I don't see any harm in it as an occasional treat - rather than the daily habit it had briefly become at this time last year (under the The Chairman's wicked influence).]

3) I am not going to drink at home any more
(Other than on special occasions, of course; or when I have a particularly scratchy throat.... )
[Oops! I have to report a dismal failure on this one. I did cut back a fair bit during the early months of the year; but since then, I fear, I have been as bad as, or worse than ever. I've stayed in quite a lot this last 12 months, partly as an economy measure, and partly because I've been ill such a lot. And quiet - lonely! - evenings in with the stereo and the DVD-player aren't much fun without a couple of cans of beer or a nip of whisky or...... Must try harder next year.]

4) I am not going to eat instant noodles more than once a week
[My most conspicuous success of the year. There may have been a few occasions when I consumed 2 or 3 bowls of this insidiously convenient snack food in the same week, or even on consecutive days (getting caught short of groceries during a particularly gruelling spell of work, or during one of the national holidays when most of the restaurants are closed down for a day or two), but I more than compensated for these lapses by managing to go without altogether in many weeks. I doubt if I've eaten more than 25 or 30 all year, probably less than half of last year's figure. Well done, Froogy - keep up the good work.]

5) I am going to cook for myself at least 2 to 3 times a week
[Hm, well, perhaps that wasn't too much of a stretch; I think I had been managing that last year as well. I haven't been cooking for myself (not proper cooking, anyway; I survive too often on soups, salads, and sandwiches) quite as much as I'd like, but I have been keeping my hand in. Could do better - not only more, but more imaginative and varied cooking should be my aim in 2009.]

6) I am going to start hosting dinner parties at my pad around once a month
[Groan! This has been my aim for 4 years now, and I'm still no nearer to making it a reality. The logistical hassles of acquiring nice cutlery, crockery, placemats, candlesticks, tablecloths, etc. are just too daunting, a gumption-test too far. This year, I'll try again. Really, I will.]

7) I am going to be more selective in my gig-going
[Well, I suppose I can claim some sort of success here: my gig-going has been much more restricted this year - but largely because so much was shut down by the Olympics: no Midi Festival, no Chaoyang Pop Festival, no Stone Boat summer season, no outdoor gigs at 2 Kolegas. Bummer! However, this year has seen the emergence of some decent new bands - Fire Balloon, Candy Monster, Mr Mojo - and SUBS and Ziyo continue to be pretty awesome whenever they play. Maybe it's time to start being a little less selective again....]

8) I am going to get back into a daily exercise regime (weights, stretches, jogging, the whole bit - maybe even a bit of yoga or t'ai chi)
[Another sorry failure, I have to confess. I have made intermittent efforts to follow through on this one, but I've never managed to sustain a regular exercise habit for long. Even my jogging has been very sporadic this year. So much stress and hassle and illness, so much early morning working, such poisonous air quality for much of the year - I just haven't had the opportunity to get out and run regularly. I fear I am becoming quite a porker. Next year I am going to make this one work - oh, yes!]

9) I am going to blog less - and try to do some proper writing instead
[No, that just didn't happen at all. I worry that I am perhaps coming to think of blogging as proper writing. Oh, god, NOOOOO.......]

10) I am going to find a girlfriend (maybe not Madame X, but someone, dammit, someone)
[Well, I did try. These things are not entirely within one's own control. My efforts, of course, were marred by episodes of unaccountable recidivism with regard to Madame X. And I wasted the first 6 months or so of the year by allowing myself to become completely smitten with a woman I never even managed to talk to (I might rebuke myself for shyness and indecisiveness on this, but really - I only ever saw her 4 or 5 times, and none of them were auspicious occasions for an introduction: mounting her bicycle to go home outside The Rickshaw late one night, completely surrounded by friends at a noisy rock gig, showing her dad around Houhai when I was out jogging..... Cruel Fate, how you mock me!). Then there were 2 or 3 other proto-infatuations - or perhaps, 'doomed flirtations' would be a better term - over the summer, with women who were about to leave. And then, and then..... ah, well, I made the mistake of starting to become 'involved' with someone who's been a friend for a while, and probably ought to stay just a friend: she's absolutely lovely, but it's never going to work. Damn! My heart has worryingly self-destructive preferences. Definitely need to work at this one again in 2009.]

A bon mot for the New Year

"The only way to spend New Year's Eve is either quietly with friends or in a brothel. Otherwise, when the evening ends and people pair off, someone is bound to be left in tears."

W.H. Auden (1907-1973)

Auden said that? Well, I can see his point. Maybe I should go to Maggie's this New Year's Eve....

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Last call

It's not quite yet too late to pitch in with a suggestion for a favourite post (from either or both of my blogs) to republish as part of my Review of the Year series over on Froogville.

If you'd like to nominate your favourite, let me know soon. Leave me a comment here.... there.... somewhere.

Just like Ol' Man River....

.... the Possible Band Names thread just keeps rolling along....

Almost entirely thanks to the egregious Gary, who is a veritable band-naming machine and has been keeping the feature going pretty much single-handedly for the last several months.

I have omitted to give him due credit for his latest contributions, in October and November. These were particularly excellent lists, and I find it hard to pick a 'winner' from among them.

At the end of October, the upcoming American Presidential election was obviously a dominant influence, and so we got the sinisterly punning Welcome To The Palindrome and the more directly sinister Soccer Moms For Satan. I think my favourite of this crop, though, was Pitbull Lipstick. Other highlights from that list were Nemesis Schmemesis, Infinite Monkeys, Daggers Of Megiddo (I'm sure there must be a metal band of that name somewhere!), Suffocation High, Lemming Trampoline, and The Suburban Shamans (oh, that was so nearly the winner).

His Foreign Band Name that month was Weltschmerz, and his Cover Band the alarmingly plausible Pogue Minogue - " a bunch of mad Irishmen who do frenetic punk/folk covers of Kylie's hits".

His November offerings included Spartan Martin, Exiles From Atlantis, Mindnumber, and Suspect Device. Nude Newsreaders, Legends Of The Mall, and Strangers With Candy were very close runners-up, but I have to give the top spot to Tsunami Surfers.

In November, our Foreign Band Name was Ay Caramba! (shouldn't that have an inverted exclamation at the beginning?), and the Cover Band nomination was The Who tribute outfit Pinball Wizard.

Fantastic stuff, Gary. Thank you so much for all your contributions over the year.

(I have myself just added a few of the 'found band names' I've been hoarding over the past few months.)

I hope we may soon entice a few new readers to take part in this game (or goad early contributors into having another go).

Sometime in the New Year I'll try to run a poll to determine the Best of the Best from the first year of this thread (nearly 120 comments now - although probably half of them have been mine!). Tell your friends!

Saturday, December 27, 2008

YY still sucks

I commented a little while ago on how disappointing I find the new Yugong Yishan music club.

It really pains me to say this, because I've known the owner Lu Zhiqiang for years, and he's probably done more for the Beijing music scene than anybody else: his long-since demised Loupe Chante bar, over by the west gate of Tsinghua University, was one of the first rock venues in the city; and the original incarnation of Yugong was for 2 or 3 years beyond question the best music club in Beijing, and probably in China.

However, his new place is just too big - it's an atmosphere-free barn. And the proportions are somehow all wrong. The stage is just a bit too high: when you're down the front, you feel strangely cut off from the performers towering above you. The "mosh" area is just a bit too deep: if you stand on the elevated level further back, you feel as though you're miles away from from the stage. And that main elevated area at the rear is rather too high, somewhat above the level of the stage - which tends to make you feel even more disconnected from it. The best place to stand, in fact, is on the narrow stairs to either side of the (enormous) sound booth; although that, of course, is rather anti-social because you get in the way of people who want to move to and fro between the stage area and the bar in the rear. (Funnily enough, the sound is always reasonably good if you're near the sound booth - I wonder why that is?! If you're anywhere else in the room, it can be pretty dreadful: that high, high gabled roof makes for an appalling acoustic.) I've had so many disappointing experiences there - even bands that I really like seeming off form, or suffering from poor crowds, poor sound, or poor ambience - that I have practically boycotted the place over the last 8 or 9 months.

However, last night there wasn't much else going on anywhere in town.... and Yugong was advertising a 废墟 gig (fei xu = Ruins - one of the better names for a Chinese rock band). These guys are veterans of the Beijing rock scene, but they seem to be in semi-retirement now; at least, they don't play live any more; or not in any of the usual venues, anyway. I caught them once or twice at the old Yugong, and thought they were about the best rock act I've seen here - superb musicianship, and long, dreamy, semi-improvised instrumentals, rather reminiscent of Meddle-era Pink Floyd.

Last night, they were playing with a vocalist called Zhou Yunshan, who is said to be an enormously popular 'folk' singer. Or at least, he was sometime back in the '90s. And unfortunately, in China you only get to be a 'popular' success by pandering to the lowest common denominator. There was a big crowd of his long-time fans out last night (100% Chinese), who seemed to be revelling in it - former teeny-boppers, one suspects (a stage which, in China, can persist well into the twenties), but now getting into their thirties and forties. Perhaps if you could understand the lyrics, this performance might have revealed rather more substance; but I found him an unremarkable singer, and the songs were all desperately bland, at times almost Mando-pop naff. The band were as smoothly competent as ever, but they had nothing really to play: this was just anodyne cocktail lounge music, not to say elevator music. In terms of the crowd, the atmosphere, and the sound quality (I was stood right by the sound booth!), this was about the best gig I've been to there. Alas, the music was a huge letdown. I witheringly observed in a text message to a friend: "The Floyd analogy no longer works. Well, I haven't seen them in three years, I suppose. But Floyd got even better in that time. These boys seem to have got worse."

I was so disenchanted that I could barely force myself to stay until the end of the (mercifully, fairly brief) set at 11pm; and in my haste to leave, it entirely slipped my mind that there were supposed to be other performers on the bill that night, including the rather fascinating-sounding Sainkho Namtchylak, an 'experimental jazz/folk' singer who sometimes utilises the extraordinary 'throat-singing' techniques of her native Tuva (something I first learned of 15 years or so ago through Tuva or Bust!, an entertaining little book about the brilliant physicist Richard Feynman's fascination with Tuvan throat-singing). This hadn't been very widely advertised - what with it being Christmas and all - so I wasn't at all confident that she would in fact be appearing at all, or that she hadn't perhaps already been on (there were rumours that the show had started at the indecently early time of 8.30, and I didn't get there until 10.05). I am sorry to have missed her.

If you're curious about Sainkho, there's quite a lot of her on YouTube - this is probably one of her more accessible pieces. And this isn't.

Anyway, I'm now going to be even more wary of going to Yugong ever again. The place manages to disappoint me every time. Every single time.

However, they have got rather a good roster of bands lined up for the New Year's Eve show. And there's bugger all else to do.....

Friday, December 26, 2008

HBH 112

Honest toil uplifts;
The kitchen no drudgery -
With glass at elbow.

The experience of many of us this past couple of days, I daresay....

Thursday, December 25, 2008

They do things differently here

On the left we see the typical behaviour of 'Westerners' at a party.

And on the right we see that of the Chinese.

This is why I don't go to many Chinese parties - all a bit rigid and formal!

Happy Holidays!!

Any similarity to the festive decorations here at Froog Towers is entirely imaginary.

A very merry Saturnalia to you all!!!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Boo! Boo!

I learned just a little while ago that my pal David Mitchell and his most excellent Xinjiang folk/jazz group, Panjir, will not after all be playing a Boxing Day gig at Gingko (the former Room 101) this Friday evening.

The owners apparently decided - at the 11th hour! - that they weren't going to attract much of a crowd this Friday, and thought they'd try to cut their losses by cancelling the band.

A highly questionable decision, I would say. Deplorable, in fact.

Maybe they won't draw much of a crowd on the day after Christmas. Probably bookings in their restaurant aren't going well this week (because they're new, not many people have heard of them yet, and they're not doing any Christmas specials - the next few days, most people are trying to arrange parties and meals at home; and, if they are going out, they're probably going to want some sort of Christmas meal). But they might have foreseen this a month ago, when they booked the band and advertised the gig in all the expat event listings. Once you've done that, I think, you've got to commit to it: publicise the show as much as you possibly can - and go ahead with it no matter what.

I think the negative impression made by last-minute cancellation will be far worse than that which might have been made by a thin turnout - especially for a new venue still trying to establish its profile. There will certainly be some people who look in on Friday expecting to see Panjir, or hoping to see some music, anyway, who are likely to be very pissed off. The disappointment of people who were hoping for a big crowd and find a small one tends to be much less - especially if there is still some good music to listen to. Bar owners in this situation really ought to just bite the bullet, and accept the possibility of a wasted expense on the band if only half a dozen people show up (it's not as if the band's fees are that high anyway).

And I can't believe the turnout would have been as small as that. It's a Friday night. There's nothing much else going on around town. There are quite a lot of foreigners (like myself) still stuck here and at a loose end. There will, for a certainty, be at least a handful of people who wander past Gingko/101 on Friday evening to see if anything's going on there; they'd be far more likely to come in, and to stay for a while, if there were a band on.

And a band always brings its own audience, anyway. If they were worried that no-one was going to come, the musicians would ring up all their mates to get together at least the beginnings of a crowd. And Panjir are a particularly good band. And this was scheduled be (probably) their last-ever gig in Beijing (because David's going home in a few days). Of course they would have drawn a decent crowd!

Yes, I'm quite confident they would have drawn at least two or three dozen punters out - which, for a new bar, in a slow week, is a very good crowd indeed. Anyway, I had been looking forward to this all week, as one of the highlights of my Christmas; and I had been expecting to bring quite a few people along with me.

Those boys at Gingko need their heads examined.


Christmas draws nigh...

And with it, daytime drinking....

I was conferring with the friend who is hosting our festivities tomorrow. I was rather pleased with myself for having found what might just possibly be the only bottle of sherry in Beijing this Christmas (it was craftily hidden in amongst the Scottish malt whiskies in the Chaoyang Park branch of Jenny Lou's grocery!!), but then it occurred to me that she probably doesn't have any sherry glasses.

She suggested regular wine glasses would be fine.

"If we drink sherry out of wine glasses, we're going to be toasted in no time!" I objected (feebly).

"I don't see a problem with that," she replied.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Alas, poor Sammy's

I am an unashamed enthusiast for the 'dive' bar rather than the fancy-schmancy yuppy type of bar.

However, in Beijing the great majority of bars fall at the divier end of the spectrum, so one's parameters are re-set somewhat. It is strangely impressive - shocking, perhaps terrifying, but nonetheless impressive - when, against this pervasive background of diviness, one finds a bar that strikes one as a real dive.

One such was the The Sunset Grill. An unpromising name; but as I have already observed in passing (on the sadly neglected Great Bar Names thread), everybody referred to it by the name of its cheery proprietor - Sammy's. A much better name.

If you were looking for an equivalent of Moe's Tavern in Beijing, this was it. Indeed, it was several levels sleazier even than Moe's. It was a huge, bare spare space (an upstairs mezzanine giving it an extremely high ceiling), garishly lit, and with almost no decoration - all plain yellow walls and formica surfaces. The only decorative touch, really, was that the back of the bar was festooned with hand-written notices bearing ribald or downright uncouth 'bon mots'. And there were almost invariably a few tables of slightly sinister-looking individuals of some exotic nationality discussing some nefarious business deal or other. I almost wondered if they had set days for certain countries: Friday, Russian; Saturday, Serbian; Sunday, Liberian....

It offered some large-screen TVs and a satellite feed; so, for a while at the beginning of this year, The Chairman and I were considering it as a new option for watching English Premier League football. Unfortunately, Sammy was none too clear how the remote controls worked (and it was probably a pirated feed anyway, and hence likely to be disrupted by frequent re-encryption), so it was always a bit of a lottery as to whether you'd be able to watch the game you wanted or not. I remember there was one occasion where the best sport option available appeared to be South African schoolboy rugby, and another when the only football match we could get was from the Scottish 1st Division!! It's amazing what gets broadcast on satellite these days - anything but what you actually want to see.

However, the booze was very cheap. Very, very cheap. Suspiciously cheap. And almost certainly poisonously fake. But what the hey, it's still booze. The Choirboy and I were once foolhardy enough to try out Sammy's Long Island Iced Tea - priced at a very tempting 35 or 40 kuai and served in a knickerbocker glory glass! - and struggled to finish it, so strong (and toxic) was the mixture. Sammy then comped us another one, and we knew the evening - and perhaps the next few days as well - had got away from us.

The other major recommendation of the place, beyond its single-minded dedication to getting people falling-down drunk as cheaply as possible, was the geniality of host Sammy. He was so eager to build up his custom that he would generally comp you one in every two or three drinks if you were any kind of a 'regular'; and you were a 'regular' on your second visit. I found this heartiness just a bit overdone, to be frank; and - believe it or not! - I didn't always want the extra drinks (particularly if it was one of those liver-pulverising cocktails). However, Sammy's English was fairly limited, so I was perhaps missing out on much of his charm; the Man In Black, a big fan of the place, assured me that in Chinese Sammy showed himself to be a remarkable character, even something of a polymath, able to hold forth on almost any topic you cared to mention.

To be honest, it was never likely to become a regular haunt of mine. The draft beer wasn't much good; the sports coverage was unreliable; they'd use a DJ late night to pump up the 'atmosphere' (i.e. make it too noisy to have a conversation); and some of the clientele really were just a little bit too scary. Nevertheless, it filled the niche for bare-bones grunge that had been left vacant since the demise of the original Bus Bar a couple of years back; it was a useful option to have available, a 'safe haven' where you could be absolutely sure you'd never run into any of the tiresome cocktail bar crowd.

So, I rather miss it now it's gone. It got closed down just before the Olympics. There were rumours of illegal activities having been uncovered on the premises (drug-dealing and such); but then, that sort of thing goes on, to a greater or lesser extent, in most bars; I don't know that it was any more blatant there, and I doubt if Sammy was personally involved. One suspected that this was just another part of the great pre-Olympic crackdown: he wasn't that far away from the Workers' Stadium, and this was not the sort of place that the authorities would want any tourists to see! Upmarket brothel Maggie's was similarly a victim of this moral purge of the city (and was similarly beset by rumours of possibly terminal trouble with the cops, which seem to have proved unfounded). Maggie's has finally reopened again; I wonder if Sammy's will ever be back.

The advantages of age

There's been a rather terrifying hike in the price of most American whiskies just lately. Hard to say whether this is down to the decline of the dollar, or just to a bit of temporary price-gouging by the foreigner-oriented supermarkets like Jenny Lou's, taking advantage of the seasonal surge in demand.

Jack Daniel's - which could, occasionally, be got for as little as 120 RMB when I first came here six years ago, and which was still only 150 or 160 RMB a year or so ago - is now nearly 200 RMB in that store. Outrageous! Jim Beam, which always used to be one of the bargain bucket whiskies, has leapt, literally overnight, from 108 RMB to 145 RMB.

The one brand mysteriously overlooked thus far is Old Granddad, still available at a beguiling 93 RMB. I'm reasonably sure it's not fake. Perhaps it's just very old stock they've omitted to re-price. I'm wondering if I should buy a case of the stuff!

It's not a whiskey I particularly like - but it does the job. Economic exigencies dictate that it will be my Christmas nightcap for the next week or so.

I just hope the more boisterous younger members of his clan - Jack and Jim and their ilk, to say nothing of the overseas cousins Johnnie and Glen, and Paddy and.... - don't give the old fella too much of a ragging over this preferential treatment.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Getting Christmassy - a Great Drinking Song and a Great Love Song (13+13!)

Can it really be 21 years ago that The Pogues & Kirsty MacColl first sang Fairytale of New York? It seems like only yesterday! Although it now fairly regularly wins polls in the UK as the "best Christmas song ever" (I'm not sure about that, but it has a special place in my heart - and many other people's, I'm sure - because it was so original, so subversive in choosing to celebrate the fact that love can exist even between deadbeats, and can survive arguments and abuse), at the time it only made it to No. 2 in the charts. It was kept off the top spot by The Pet Shop Boys' rather insipid cover of the Elvis classic Always On My Mind (an indignant Shane would sourly refer to them as "two queens and a drum machine"). Here's the original video - don't they look young?

If you're one of those people who just can't get enough of this song..... then you might want to look at this too, a great live performance from St Patrick's Day 1988, just three months after the original release, when the band were in their prime. And I learn from YouTube that last year they performed it on TV again, for the first time in god-knows-how-long (20-year anniversary celebrations, I suppose), with Shane once again reunited with the band and Katie Melua filling in for Kirsty. This one is chiefly interesting to see how they've aged (which is mostly not well, particularly with poor old Shane - but the way those lads used to party, you're amazed that they're still here). A rather more appropriate replacement for Kirsty is Sinead O'Connor, who performed the song in concert with the boys in Dublin last Christmas; unfortunately, her vocals don't come over too clearly on this bootleg, although the picture quality is good. This cellphone camera footage of the same concert is actually rather fun, in that it captures the frenetic singalong atmosphere (even though the sound and the picture are inevitably pretty piss-poor).

Not a dry eye in the house.....

A Merry Christmas to all my readers! (...if I still have any??)

Norman No-Mates (again)

It'll be lonely, this Christmas, lonely and cold....

The Weeble, my best drinking companion this year, flew back to the States a few days ago. The Choirboy is flying home this morning. The Bengali, who had been intending to stick around, just made an impulsive last-minute decision to take a holiday somewhere (he's not saying where, secretive chap). Nearly all of my other occasional bar associates - Aussie Rick, Big Chris, AA, The Man In Black - have quit the country too. Well, Mr Sex is still here..... but - surprise, surprise! - he has "a date" tonight. And as for The Chairman..... well, of The Chairman, nothing can be said. He is "out of circulation". Probably permanently. He is lost to us.

In recent months, I have been finding that I can escape my solitude by popping down to my new local favourite, the 12 Sq M Bar - where most nights there will be a few interesting strangers to chat to (they get a lot of passing trade, mostly short-term visitors staying in nearby hotels); and, if it's deserted, at least I can banter a little with the friendly proprietors, Joseph and Li Mei. Unfortunately (for me!), they're off on an extended holiday in Oz in a couple of days, so tonight will be my last chance for a little fix of companionship there.

Like I said, it's looking like it could be a very lonely Christmas....

Friday, December 19, 2008

HBH 111

Thursday would be BEST
day of the week, but for threat
of Friday following!

Yes, last night's gig was indeed an excellent and important occasion (so many friends saying goodbye); but I could really have done without having to get up so early this morning.

Ah, well - I've got at least 5 days clear, from Christmas Eve onwards....

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Another musical era ends

For the past 3 or 4 years, one of the best bands in town has been Panjir - playing Central Asian folk music with sometimes just a little bit of a free jazz twist. A couple of years or so back, they did a long Sunday evening residency in my cosy local music bar, Jiangjinjiu, where I enjoyed seeing them many times. After a bit of a hiatus, they returned there this summer, and have been playing every Thursday for the past few months.

Now, alas, British guitarist David Mitchell, who founded the group with his Uyghur friend Ekber Ebliz, is quitting China in a couple of weeks, probably for good. (Well, he's planning to return early next year for another extended spell of music study and research in the western province of Xinjiang, and he's hoping to take the group touring in Europe at some point - but it seems we'll only see him in Beijing again for the most fleeting of visits, if at all.)

It looks as though Panjir's final gig of all will be on Boxing Day at Gingko (the former Room 101, on Andingmennei); but tonight will be their last performance at Jiangjinjiu, and that, I think, is the best place to see them - their 'spiritual home'.

It could be an emotional farewell.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The 12 Days of Christmas - a year-end review

I've conceived a plan to try to give myself a break from daily blogging over the upcoming holiday by re-printing a selection of the best posts from the last 12 months.

I have endeavoured to contact all of my 'regular' readers (and/or anyone who's ever left a favourable comment!) to ask them if they can nominate one post they remember as a personal favourite - from either or both of my blogs. I already have a number of replies, and a few more promises "to get around to it".

However, I thought I'd make a more public announcement - just in case there's anyone I missed; or in case there are some lurkers I don't yet know about out there who'd like to join in.

Just leave me a comment here (or here) with the name and date of a post you like (and perhaps just a line or two about why, if you can be bothered). I think I'll do this series just on Froogville, but you're welcome to recommend something from either blog.

I'm intending to run this series of re-posts as a sort of End of Year Review from 25th December to 5th January - so you still have plenty of time. Please join in.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Blue Frog - lousiest of the recent openings??

Blue Frog is one of those places it's going to be very hard for me not to hate.

Stupid name, for a start. Stupid level of prices, for another (very nearly twice as much - for both drinks and food - as most of its immediate competitors).

The chain originated in Shanghai. And yes, its first branch in Beijing that opened earlier this summer was in Shunyi - the rich person's ghetto out by the airport. Its second Beijing location is in the huge and soulless new Sanlitun über-mall, The Village. You can see how hard it is going to be for me not to hate this place.

However, it is said to do a rather good burger - so I have been delaying the concluding part of my burger review series until I've had a chance to check it out. Their burgers start at a ludicrous 70-80 kuai each..... but on Mondays, they're two-for-one, which gives them a narrow window of affordability (and, I gather, drinks are also two-for-one during the 4pm-8pm 'happy hour'). I know, I know, I have always tried to stick to the principle that you shouldn't give a place your custom on 'happy hour' if you can't afford it (or otherwise don't like it) at any other time, but.... we are doing our best to be open-minded here, to give just a little benefit of the doubt to a new opening.

I have, in fact, been plotting to go there on a Monday night for the past several weeks, but I can never cajole any of my (equally impecunious) friends into accompanying me.

A few Mondays ago, I was driven to visit the place alone (though, naturally, heartbroken that the second - free - burger would be going to waste). As it happened, it sucked so mightily that I didn't even stay for a drink.

First off, it's pretty damned hard to find. There are (unusually for China!) quite a few maps scattered around The Village - but still not quite as many or quite as conspicuous as you might wish for in such a large and labyrinthine mall, so it took me quite a while to find the place. Blue Frog is on an upper level (and not visible from anywhere down below, as far as I could make out) - where there are an awful lot of unlet spaces, so the general ambience as you approach is extremely drab and uninviting. I had feared there might be a bit of an early evening rush on 2-for-1 Burger Night, but..... NO. When I got there around 7pm, there was only one table occupied.

I was asked if I'd like the smoking or non-smoking section. I was dumb enough to reply "Non-smoking". The sole customers were having quite a loud and obnoxious conversation right in the middle of the non-smoking room, so I didn't want to sit anywhere too near them; the second - "smoking" - room was completely deserted, but the staff would not let me go in there. "But you are not a smoker!" they objected vociferously. Oh, well.

I reluctantly sat down in a corner a couple of tables away from the noisy yahoos. My waitress demanded my drink order almost before the menu had left her hand - again, not a good sign. I asked her to give me a moment to think about it, and she hovered right beside - not a good sign.

Worst of all, the hi-fi was playing some very loud disco-ey kind of number, with a really throbbing beat to it. This "music" was bugging the crap out of me within seconds: it felt like an aneurysm pulsing away inside my skull. I decided to leave without ordering anything.

They did at least ask me if anything was wrong. When I told them I didn't like the music, they made a half-hearted offer to "turn it down". How about turning it off??

This was just not the sort of music they should ever be playing in a place like that. It's primarily a restaurant, not bar or a nightclub, so it needs to go with jazz, or perhaps some classic rock. And the music should never be anywhere near that loud. Maybe, a little later in the evening, and if you've got a big crowd in, you might increase the volume a bit to create a 'buzzier' atmosphere. But early evening, people just want to go there for a quiet after-work drink and some intimate conversation; they do not want (nobody, not even people that like this sort of music) throbbing dance music that's so loud it brings on a headache.

I'm not sure if I should bother to try to include Blue Frog in my 'burger review'. Even if it's the best damn burger in the city (and I'm pretty sure it won't be), it's not going to be worth 70 kuai. And it's not worth enduring the crappy service and the godawful music.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The bargain drinker

I have discovered that Smuggler's, the least objectionable of the cheapo drinking dens around the corner from Tongli (really rather a decent little bar, in fact; although, alas, completely deserted much of the time), has some of the cheapest spirits in town. What's more, I think most of them are genuine; a little watered down, maybe - but not the poisonous fake stuff that most of the low-end places foist on you. Their J & B scotch whisky is particularly convincing, and a mere 15 kuai for a generous shot. Or 30 for a double.

Even better, they sell Yanjing beer. Only in a stubby bottle (and I tend not to enjoy stubby bottles; I imagine that beer - any beer - tastes worse when served in inadequate portions), but it still tastes pretty darn good - way better than the appalling Tsingtao!! What's more, they're currently offering this beer at 2-for-15 kuai. Pretty damned reasonable!

Thus, a mere 90 kuai will buy you approximately 1.5 hours of happiness - while you are, say, enjoying some football highlights on TV on a slow Monday evening.

Best of all, although I've only been in there a handful of times, they already remember me - and what is becoming my regular order! It does feel good to achieve that level of recognition in a bar.

The weekly bon mot

"The pain passes, but the beauty remains."

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919)

Having just endured the departure of another of my (unrequited, of course) amours, I can't help thinking that P-A got it backwards....

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Burger blues (pt. 2)

Dicebamus hesterna die....

Even though there are numerous burger options in Beijing today, it's still hard to find a good one.

Amongst the most common problems are:

Lousy buns
(Although there are some foreign-run bakeries here that know how to make good bread, restaurants always seem to opt for crappy mass-produced Chinese-made buns - and Chinese bread always seems to have a nasty hint of sweetness about it.)

Poor quality meat
(I've mentioned before the shitty quality of most of the beef in this country. If you want a really good burger, you're probably going to have to pay a premium rate for imported Australian beef.)

Iffy consistency/excessive fragility
(Even the better burgers here have an alarming tendency to fall apart. Perhaps you need to use a little beaten egg to bind your patties, gentlemen??)

Eccentric sizing
(Either too big or too small - rarely just right.)

Lack of sauces/relishes
(Well, other than ketchup. Or, if you're really lucky, mustard. On the other hand, some places want to use wildly inappropriate sauces such as thousand island dressing! Without asking you.)

Lack of decent fries/salad
(Even when the burger's sort of OK, the accompaniments rarely are.)

Soggy burger/soggy bun
(None of the grill chefs in this town seems to have acquired the basic skill of squeezing the excess fat out of the burger while it's grilling. 9 times out of 10, you have to do this for yourself after your burger arrives - leaving a huge pool of unappetising grease on your plate. Even worse, a lot of the burgers here seem to have a huge amount of water in them [not sure if it's just down to their being deep frozen, or if the meat is being injected with extra water to bulk it up, or...] which leaves an even bigger and nastier puddle on your plate, and/or completely saturates the bottom half of your burger bun. Honestly, some of these buns/burgers you have to wring out like a flannel. It's not nice.)

This is not rocket science - but I'm not sure that anywhere in Beijing has really managed to get it right yet. I'm still looking.

To be continued (again)......

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Bad Santa

Having managed to shirk the Santa duties at my girly chums' Christmas Party for the last two years, I suddenly find myself lumbered again with the role - this time in a 'private performance'. This is what you get for being the sole surviving bachelor when all of your friends have young children. I still insist that I am neither old enough nor fat enough (nor hearty enough nor philanthropic enough!) to play the part convincingly - but.... resistance is futile.

Costuming logistics are a bit of a hassle (I have to try to find a bar or a shop somewhere near the venue to do a quick change).... but I'm quite looking forward to it, really. DD - the evil genius behind the plan, hosting an afternoon party for several of her friends with kids - has promised me the traditional sherry & mince pies.

"Mmm - afternoon drinking!"........ as Homer J might say......

Happy Birthday, Club 13

Club 13 (or 13 Club, if you wish) - Wudaokou's better music bar - is celebrating its 4th anniversary tonight. I don't think I shall be able to go, but I wish them well. (I'm surprised by the date: I really thought they launched in the late spring or early summer. Maybe I was just very slow to discover them.)

The place is in almost every way vastly superior to its near neighbour, D-22: better space, better sound, better crowd (still beset by worthless foreign students, of course; but with a much, much higher percentage of Chinese kids among its clientele), less up its own bum about "how important it is to the scene". Only the rather sketchy service and the limited roster of bands (heavy on the metal) let it down. I haven't been out there for a while now. I really should make the effort soon.

(Tonight, however, is the Tag Team Records Christmas Shindig at my favourite music bar, 2 Kolegas - and that, I'm afraid, is a superior attraction.)


My negativity yesterday morning proved to be sadly prescient: White - as my buddy The British Cowboy would have it - sucked donkey balls. No percussion, precious little guitar; instead, the two members of the group have both discovered the dubious delights of making bloopy-bleepy noises with synthesisers (that's one of the hazards of being in a 'developing' country: people don't have the opportunity to get this shit out of their system when they're 14.... and may thus mistakenly think it's 'cool' when they're 26 and really ought to know better). Nothing like the stuff they were playing two years ago (which was actually, you know, music). Very, very disappointing.

And, as is fairly standard at D-22, nobody showed up on stage at all until at least an hour after the advertised start time; and we then had to suffer 4 or 5 very mediocre warm-up acts before the main event. And this 'main event' was definitely not worth waiting up until after 1am for.

The one saving grace of the evening was the presence of a 'band' dubbed Beijing Oprah - I really do like that as a band name! However, I rather fear that that isn't really their name, just a joke the bookers at the club came up with. They're just a trio of students - a male and female vocalist and a traditional percussionist - who do straight renditions of Beijing Opera songs. Very well done, and quite a pleasant change of pace from the rest of the programme - although I fear people weren't paying them very much attention.

My fears about a possible relapse into crapness by the bar, though, proved mercifully unfounded. The drinks prices have come down quite dramatically from when they first opened. The draft beer is still cold and - amazingly - clean-tasting. The pair of barmen who so impressed me back in May appear to have moved on, but the three new young guys behind the bar are equally good (well, maybe they are the same guys..... I mean, I only met them once, briefly, 6 months or more ago. I thought I recalled them both as being a bit older and stouter than these skinny youngsters, but..... a change of hairstyle can render a Chinese kid completely unrecognisable!). The sound system still isn't great, but it's a lot better than it was in the bad old days (they seem to have got a new bloke on the mixing desk - who's actually able to make something happen when he tweaks the knobs; the previous sound guy was, for some reason, utterly ineffectual) ; and, once again, no equipment failures. Even the levels of smugness that the place tends to exude were a little more muted last night.

So far, so good. Unfortunately, it's never going to be a great space for live music - too narrow and cramped: if you're more than a few yards back from the stage, you can't see a bloody thing (most of the Chinese go upstairs on the balcony, where you get a better view.... and don't feel under any pressure to buy drinks; I think they're on to something!). And the acoustics of the room are pretty muddy.

Moreover, I don't like the fact that the place is so dominated by laowai. Last night, at least 95% of the people in there - at least, downstairs - were foreigners. Worse, I'd bet that almost all of them were language students - not a demographic that I warm to. I could probably vent in several long posts about why I hate language students so much.... but, in a nutshell: most of them are insufferably smug about merely making the effort to try to learn Chinese; many of them in fact make only a very ineffectual effort to do so, and leave after 6 months or a year with no worthwhile language skills at all; and a very high proportion of them are wasters and dropouts who have no job back home and no idea what to do with their lives but are naively optimistic that learning a little bit of Chinese will somehow open up all sorts of new opportunities for them. That's right, you know the type: never had a proper job 3 years after finishing college, or perpetual mature student on the run from study loan repayments*, or tried and failed to run a one-man IT consultancy, or..... Yes, the kind of loser you try to avoid in the pub back home; and often a self-important twat along with it. Imagine a whole community of these people. This is why I don't go to Wudaokou very often.

D-22 looks as though it has managed to transform itself into a very good bar. My congratulations - this is no mean achievement, especially after such inauspicious beginnings.

Unfortunately, it's too far away, in the wrong part of town.... and really not much of a music club.

* Yes, yes, I know - pot & kettle. But at least I'm not dumb enough to believe that learning Chinese will be a panacea for my fecklessness.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The spirit of scientic enquiry.....

Why else would I consider venturing out to the distant (and largely devoid of decent bars) wasteland of Wudaokou on a Friday evening?

Despite the very favourable impression that D-22 made on me when I last gave it a try at the Ian Sherman Benefit Gig, I haven't found a reason to go back there since, and that was 6-and-a-half months ago. As I noted then, I was a little sceptical as to whether the miraculous changes they seemed to have wrought in the place - reliable mike cables, maximally tweaked sound balance, decent draft beer, impeccable bar service - would long endure. Now, perhaps, we shall see.

The particular draw tonight is the brief resurrection of White, one of Beijing's only genuinely unique musical outfits - often given the unappealing tag of being a 'noise' band, but I'm not sure that that really covers it too well: it's experimental, largely improvisatory, and, yes, oddball and rather self-indulgent, but quite clever, usually surprisingly listenable and even occasionally melodic. It's a collaboration between two of the Beijing scene's most talented musicians - Shenggy, former drummer of the (appallingly named) all-girl band Hang On The Box (although I think she plays a bit of guitar and keyboards too, and, if I recall aright, has a much nicer singing voice than the rather raucous HOTB frontwoman, Gia), and Jeff Zhang of the (appallingly named) Carsick Cars, who can't sing worth a damn but plays some pretty nifty guitar. They'd played several rather good gigs a couple of years back - sometimes just as a duo, sometimes with an extended lineup of supplementary musicians - and there was talk of a record; but then Shenggy departed for graduate studies in England. They're getting back together just for a few gigs this December - so, not to be missed. At least, I hope they're not to be missed; D-22 has a long history of disappointing me, even with good bands. And this is perhaps a rather hit-or-miss band.

Now, now, Froog - positive thinking!

HBH 110

Expensive options?
Necessary indulgence!
Cruising the top shelf...

As so often happens in these dry and sore-throaty Beijing winters, I have recently been resurrecting my occasional (costly, but oh so spirit-lifting) malt whisky habit - mainly at the rather excellent 12 Sq M Bar, my new regular hangout in the 'hood.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

They're back!

I gather Maggie's finally reopened a few days ago. It's not the kind of place that I would be caught dead in myself, but..... I have been rather missing those 'dogs. They were a favourite on-the-way-home snack after a musical evening at The Stone Boat.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Burger blues (pt. 1)

Now, I am not the sort of person who hankers after 'home comforts' all the time. I am quite prepared to 'go Chinese' (despite the notorious limitations of the cuisine!) for weeks together at a stretch. And when I do occasionally treat myself to something a little more upmarket, it's more likely to be something more richly flavoured, like Indian or Thai food.... or, once in a blue moon, a proper restaurant like Alameda. However, the simplicity of the classic burger is a thing of beauty, and I do from time to time find myself pining for something like..... well, not quite like this meaty monstrosity below (deprivation warps the mind, you know), but a really good burger.

Actually, the template of burger perfection in my mind (never having been to the gleefully over-the-top Heart Attack Grill in the suburbs of Phoenix, which is home to the towering stack of carnivore delight above) is probably the burgers of Pepper's, a little takeaway joint in North Oxford (just past the Phoenix arts cinema, which was a second home to me throughout my student days and in a subsequent period living and working in the city). On my last trip back 16 months ago, I was bitterly upset to discover that the place had suddenly closed, after - I think - more than 25 years of doing business. Burgers, fries, buns, and range of sauces available were all hard to fault - and they were cooked to order, right in front of you, on a grill behind the counter. I have many (not always entirely pleasant) memories of the 'White Shark' - an extra-strong chilli sauce which The Bookseller and I would regularly order as a kind of (foolish, self-destructive!) macho competition between ourselves. Whereas he could often outdo me in smothering a doner kebab with 'special' sauce from one of his favourite 'bab vans, encounters with The Shark usually favoured me. He just wasn't so practised with it. The problem with it was that you were never quite sure what you were going to get: they didn't exactly have a set recipe for it, I don't think; they just seemed to mix it up ad hoc, by adding a random heap of chilli powder to their regular (not exactly wimpy) chilli sauce. It tended to be a brownish colour, rather than red (rather like the colour of dried blood, in fact, now that I come to think of it); and, in its hottest incarnations, it had a thick and gritty texture. I recall one occasion when The Bookseller - despite extensive precautionary anaesthesia - found himself quite defeated by The Shark, and had to scrape the sauce off his burger after just a few bites. He then proceeded to drip blobs of the fiery-hot brown goo experimentally on to concrete paving stones - "to see if it will eat holes in them; you know, like the Alien's blood".

Other glimpses of "burger heaven" in my life have been Fat Burger in LA and Five Guys in DC (in fact, I have come to know and love Five Guys especially over the last decade and a bit because they have a branch in Alexandria, just off King St, barely two blocks from where the old university friend I usually stay with lives; well, he used to live there; at least he's still in Old Town, and within a reasonable walk of FG). Five Guys perhaps suffers from a slightly over-complicated ordering system (you have to pick all your fixins individually, and there's a huge selection), but it's very reasonably priced; and I love the choice of regular or chilli fries; oh, and the sack of free peanuts for you to amuse yourself with while you wait for your order to be made up. Fat Burger I don't remember too much about now, except that the burgers were good, and HUGE. And except that it figured in one of David Letterman's humorous 'lists' - of reasons why it was good to live in LA. And except that in the one I visited (not too far from Venice Beach; and within a few hours of my very first arrival in the States, some 15 years ago) none of the staff and very few of the customers spoke anything but Spanish.

But I digress...... The point of this post was supposed to be to review the burger scene in Beijing (briefly). Expats here have long complained that there is nowhere in the city to get a really good burger (well, nowhere apart from TGI Friday's and the Hard Rock Café, which are not the kind of places I would ever go in..... and the distant 'Little America' of Shunyi township). However, in the last year - indeed, just in the last few months - there has been a veritable explosion of new burger options in the city. I still haven't tried most of these new places. And I'm probably never going to try most of them. There are one or two places getting into a how-much-money-can-we-waste-on-something-as-simple-as-a-burger pissing competion: wagyu steak and foie gras garnish? Oh, please!! I am not ever going to spend that kind of money (200 or 300 kuai!) on a burger, even if my lottery numbers do come up. This is, alas, part of the progressive gentrification - the Shanghai-ification - that has been assaulting our fair city in recent months (something I complained of just the other day). I think this trend can be resisted and repulsed, if we all stand together against it. Unfortunately, I fear, far too many people are prepared to say, "Hey, you know, I'm so desperate for a burger, I'd pay almost anything for one", or "Well, 70 kuai isn't so unreasonable for a burger; I guess I can afford that."

The vanguard of the Nanluoguxiang bar street (it's been there 7 years now, putting it at least 4 years ahead of the trend!) was the Pass-By Bar. In its early days it used to have a burger - a rather good burger, at that - on its menu. I mean, it wasn't anything great, but at that time it was the only place in the city I knew where you could get one at all. In those days it was a pretty low-rent, unpretentious kind of joint - catering mostly to backpackers, indigent English teachers, and the impoverished boho type of expat that lives around the Ju'er Hutong. Susan, the owner, tried to tell me that nobody ever ordered the burger; but that was highly dubious - I ordered it myself quite regularly, and most of the friends I introduced to the place had tried it and enjoyed it on their first visits (as I said, it was just about the only place you could get a burger back then - at least, in our neighbourhood - and so it was an obvious first choice on the menu for expats, especially Americans, who were starting to feel pangs of homesickness). No, cutting their burger from the menu was a statement of intent, the beginning of a push for a more upscale clientele: No Riff-Raff. In commercial terms, it seems to have worked out for them: their original siheyuan café has expanded, and is now regularly packed (though mostly now with Chinese yuppies, rather than the down-at-heel expats the place used to attract); and they've been able to open a more ambitious 'restaurant' branch of the business a few doors down. Good luck to them. However, I do rather miss the Pass-By of old - quaint, rarely crowded, 'my secret'. And I miss being able to get a burger in the 'hood.

It is curious, is it not, that the early wave of gentrification in our city would seem to have involved the eradication of the burger, while the second phase - the Let's catch up to Shanghai phase - involves its reintroduction at ridiculously high prices.

Enough, then, of the historical background. Let's review the burger options in Beijing today.

Well, OK, no, let's not. I've rather run out of steam for now. And I've made myself feel hungry by talking about all of this. Supper calls.

To be continued........