Yes, it was back to the salt mines for your poor, martyred blogger here, thanks to an invitation to the opening of Xi Shi, the posh new bar in the Shangri-La hotel in glamorous downtown Vangroover. It helps when you know the head barman. The woman in charge of the bar at Xi Shi is Heather Yau, who competed admirably in last year’s Tales of the Cocktail both in Vancouver and in New Orleans. Accompanying me was the lovely and talented Cathy Browne, who took all these gorgeous pictures; impressive enough, but moreso when you realize she’s legally blind.
It’s a lovely space once you’re inside, but getting inside consists of going around to the “back” of the building which is really the “front” and standing around the lobby, looking confused, until a staff member asks if you’re here for the Xi Shi party, and gently points the way. I’d tell you how to find it yourself, but I think they’re trying to keep it a secret, and besides, the staff need to keep busy!
It’s a long, light, L space with ceilings that go up to HERE and sightlines that go out to THERE, which is great for people-watching if you’re not as nearsighted as I am. This isn’t the place for a discreet affair, as the “around the corner, tucked away” tables are basically just off Robson Street, ie you might as well be parked outside of TMZ. This is the place raincoaster, who now refers to herself in the third person because she’s imaginary-dating much higher-grade people lately, will be taking her next boytoy for a quiet drink.
Right after she alerts the paparazzi and gets her hair did.
The general theme is Contemporary Asian, meaning airy and Zen, with referential scatterings of Chinoiserie, as in the cheongsams worn by the waitresses. It must be said, and that by me, that it’s good to see a place that doesn’t go for Generic Vancouver Glossy: black on black on black with black leather chairs and chrome and everything shiny and hard. The cascade of glass over the bar changes colours thanks to clever lighting, although there’s a definite preference for pink: even the house cocktail is pink, at which point I am tempted to insert a reference to intimate anatomy but yea verily, am too way classy.
Ahem. Anyway…as I was saying, a lounge shouldn’t look like a dance club, and it shouldn’t look like an operating room. I like a place that looks good by day as well as by night. See for yourselves:
Did I say Chinoiserie? Yes, yes I did, even though Spellchecker tried to replace it with “Chitterlings,” but I was having none of that! Chinoiserie I said and Chinoiserie I meant, speaking of which, behold the Lady Grey Cocktail:
The Lady Grey cocktail is a beautiful thing, a mellowed orange with brassy glints. The pot, by the way, is full of hot water so you can adjust it to the strength you prefer; it and the cup and saucer are a custom-made iteration of the classic Blue Willow pattern which tells the story of a pair of runaway lovers. It’s made with Earl Grey tea-infused Tanqueray gin with an extra measure of Bergamot, and seemed to me a little too sharply citrus. And oh! if you only knew what it costs my very soul to criticize a free drink! Ah, the trouble with using fresh ingredients is, the difference between one lemon and another can be substantial!
Jay Jones has come through with the recipe for us so you can judge for yourself. And wouldn’t a bottle of Earl Grey Tanqueray liven up a nice bridge party? I don’t know about you, but the presence of card snobs of any variety usually drives me to drink, or at least calls me a cab to. And somehow bourbon goes with poker the way gin goes with bridge.
1.5 oz earl grey tea-infused tanqueray gin
.4 oz fresh lemon juice
.6 oz sugar syrup
small pot of hot water
-all ingredients (except hot water) combined in shangri-la blue willow china tea cup & saucer
-served with matching small shangri-la blue willow china pot of hot water
-pour hot water to fill tea cup – top up as desired
*served with lemon zest
Earl Grey Tea-Infused Gin
1. empty a 1.14 liter bottle of Tanqueray London Dry Gin (room temperature) into a clean, dry, sealable container
2. place 4 heaping tablespoons of loose leaf Earl Grey tea in the Gin (use bags alternatively – much neater)
3. seal container and leave to steep for minimum 1 hour at room temperature – longer if desired (2 hours suggested)
4. after steeping, shake sealed container throughly
5. strain tea leaves/remove tea bags from Gin – the Gin’s colour should be deep brown
5. seal and refrigerate to preserve freshness (max 1 week shelf life when refrigerated)
The signature cocktail here is the Iron Lotus, concocted by cocktail queen Heather Yau; only last year she was a humble apprentice at hipster central, the Waldorf, and look at her now! Xi Shi is a PBR-free zone!
The Iron Lotus is a hard drink to turn out in bulk, each being made from the same number of fresh raspberries. The sweetness varies wildly depending on the particular individual raspberries, but whether more tart or more sweet, this is as lovely to drink as to look at.
The focus at Xi Shi is on lighter, less alcoholic, and more feminine drinks overall; this is not a place where you will find many people testing flights of bourbon or single malt. There’s no doubt that Xi Shi, named after a goddess, was put together with the fact that women choose the date spot firmly in mind. The flattering, rose-coloured lighting makes everyone look ten years younger (I’m sure they only failed to card me out of deference), and the lower alcohol content in the drinks ensures that you don’t slip from Charming Anita Loos to Scary Dorothy Parker.
And the food ensures you don’t slip from Perky Britney to Sad Britney.
Squeeee! This adorable little roast of lamb was less than two inches long, and came with crunchy yogurt. Yes, crunchy yogurt, and not because it was left in the back of the fridge for six months and then scraped off the lid of the container like your revolting roommate used to do; because the kitchen is a Shangri-La kitchen, and they do things right and just a little weird.
Behold the mammoth crabcake! Did I already say “behold?” I did, didn’t I? Oh well, you wouldn’t believe how many people I’m beholden in this town, although their bank managers would.
The salmon was so good the waiter wouldn’t let me refuse, although I was getting pretty full. Believe me, I will never again doubt a Xi Shi waiter.
What to do when you’ve had as much food as you can hold? That’s right: back to cocktails!
Just look at the legs on that thing! My pal Jay Jones knows I’m a gin snob, so he made me a Martini using The Botanist gin from Scotland, one I hadn’t tried before. Frankly, this may be Too! Much! Gin! even for me: the title role botanicals are dense and overwhelming if you’re unprepared. Because it’s produced by Bruichladdich, a famous and famously insane Islay Whisky distillery, it is viscous and powerful, and my recommendation is to have one, but have it James Bond style: very large, very cold, and very well-made. And have one only. This gin is Serious Business. Here’s a list of the various botanicals:
Apple Mint Birch leaves, Bog Myrtle leaves, Chamomile (sweet), Creeping Thistle flowers, Elder flowers, Gorse flowers, Heather flowers, Hawthorn flowers, Juniper (prostrate) berries, Lady’s Bedstraw flowers, Lemon Balm, Meadow Sweet, Peppermint leaves, Mugwort leaves, Red Clover flowers, Sweet Cicely leaves, Tansy, Thyme leaves, Water Mint leaves, White Clover, Wood Sage leaves, Angelica root, Cassia bark, Cinnamon bark, Coriander seed, Juniper berries, Lemon peel, Liquorice root, Orange peel and Orris root.
Say THAT three times fast! The nose on this is citrus and juniper dominated, the taste complex, puzzling…you just can’t figure out the various elements and it can’t be said they blend into one single whole. It’s like listening to a Beethoven symphony and then trying to pick out each of the instruments. And trust me, this ain’t Brahms: it’s DEFINITELY Beethoven. The aftertaste is long and powerful, and in it you begin to discern some of the different components. I like it, but it’s definitely Special Occasion Gin, not It’s Five O’Clock Gin.
Ah, the Neo-Classical Hemingway Daiquiri! One of the greatest summer drinks, featuring grapefruit where you’d expect lime, and a sour cherry where you’d expect … nothing at all. Not for Papa your silly blender drinks! Although this has a noticeable alcohol content, it fits right into the Xi Shi aesthetic of light-tasting, citrusy cocktails.
Cue the Darth Vader music…
The Nautical Disaster is not a drink to be trifled with. It shouldn’t even be left alone with your wallet. This dark and dangerous newcomer is a rum-based take on the classic Sazerac, and it’s hearty, thick, spicy, complex, and sweet, just like me. It’s also definitely your last cocktail of the night. If he has one of these and still hasn’t sealed the deal, well my dear, just get up and go home.