The drinks are only part of an evening out at Taipei's champagne lounge bars, which provide a chance...
by Brian Asmus
"I'll never forget the Opium Den," enthused a former patron of Taipei's earliest and most famous champagne lounge bar. While sadly OD is no more, Taipei is chock-a-block with similar venues -- mostly concentrated along Anhe Rd. -- though few if any have the same soul or panache. While some suggest that the reign of the champagne and lounge bar is nearly over, loyal patrons maintain that any talk of such demise is highly premature.
While there is very little consensus about what counts as a lounge or champagne bar, flowing draperies (either glittery gauze or plush velvet and preferably purple), sofas (swank, overstuffed or streamlined modernity), and over-the-top lighting or accent pieces (ornate chandeliers, Tiffany lamps, hanging jewel-like beads, or gaudy, Neo-Baroque artwork) are de rigueur.
Popular color schemes range from psychedelic orange and intense purple to subdued creams and golds to stark monochromes to exotic Shanghai or Tibetan themes. These are not places to come to relax. They seek to impress, as does the clientele that frequents them. Taipei's hippest designer, Mark Lintott, first defined the style with Opium Den before moving on to design Room 18 and Plush.
As Taipei's finest strut and sashay -- and they only do so in groups -- you'd better believe that they will be dressed to the nines. It doesn't matter whether it's Prada, Gucci, or Louis Vuitton, you will see it in abundance -- and only the real McCoy will do for Taipei's crème de la crème. Don't even think you might pass muster with that knockoff you bought on Zhongxiao East Rd. This crowd can spot a fake in a New York minute.
It is precisely for this reason that not simply any drink will do for Taipei's beau monde. Quaffs of choice start from champagne, martinis, or other fashionable cocktails in stylish glasses. If you want cocktails, the ingredients have to be made from special labels like Belvedere Vodka and Grand Marnier. Forget your average cocktail tumbler drinks, and beer is strictly for the hopelessly gauche.
With aspirations -- or delusions -- of grandeur, I rounded up a posse and set out to scale the summit of Taipei's Vanity Fair. Beware, many of these bars have minimum charges, so ask in advance.
We proceeded first to Chic (53 Anhe Rd. Sec. 1. Tel: 2771-9036). The bar was decorated with minimalist, Zen, monochromatic simplicity. Expensive wood cabinets contained no small variety of expensive Scotch whiskeys and cigars -- must haves on the lounge-bar circuit -- though we chose to order Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label nonvintage champagne.
If you're going to piss in the grass with the big dogs, you'd better know the terminology. According to food and wine consultant Mary Nicholls [reachable at email@example.com for wine-tasting classes], "Medium to high-end, nonvintage champagne is subtle and delicate with high levels of acidity and a taste that the winemaker has perfected over many years. Nonvintage champagne is blended to exactly replicate the house style every year, so consumers are guaranteed that what they drank at their retirement celebration will be the same as at their 21st birthday or wedding."
At the first stop, most guests are really not in the mood to hear much discussion about champagne. You can almost sense the strained politeness as they just wait for you to pour, pour POUR! The waitress at Chic was a bit inexperienced with the proper technique for opening a champagne bottle, struggling with the wire and cork. You could have heard a pin drop. Nicholls pointed out that you should never pop a cork when opening a bottle of champagne. Not only is it déclasséÅ½ but it also dissipates the bubbles.
The Yellow Label (NT$2,800 or retail NT$1,300) was dominated by Pinot Noir, giving the wine the strong structure typical of house wines, while a slight touch of Pinot Meunier added roundness. Meanwhile, Chardonnay gives Yellow Label the elegance and finesses it needs for perfect balance, said Nicholls, adding that, "Yellow Label is an excellent aperitif wine because of its finesse, freshness, and length." Many detected fresh, green apples.
Now that everyone was starting to relax, we walked a couple of doors down to Naomi (B1, 65 Anhe Rd. Sec. 1. Tel: 2709-2395). Naomi favors psychedelic orange lighting, with entrance made along a lighted walkway. You'd better be young, good-looking, and dressed in the latest fashions if you are going to withstand the scrutiny from this crowd.
Feeling a little flush from our earlier bottle, we decided to up the ante, opting for the Veuve Clicquot Vintage Reserve 95 (NT$3,000, retail NT$1,600). The Vintage Reserve was a blend of about 20 Premiers and Grands Crus with the power of Pinot Noir balanced by the finesse and elegance of Chardonnay. While the bouquet was delightful pears, some found the taste a bit too raisiny.
Nicholls explained that there is no guarantee that vintage champagnes will actually taste better and since the flavor varies widely from year to year, you will just have to experiment until you find one that you like.
During the second bottle, the wonderful euphoria provided by bubbly started to kick in. The jokes became a bit more ribald, the laughter a bit more effusive. Amazingly, we no longer felt quite as self-conscious about our middle-aged spreads or receding hairlines, while being fully capable of appreciating the steady parade of eye candy. One serious drawback to lounge bars, however, is that you will not be meeting anyone outside your group. The bar serves as a pick-up point only in the sense that the wait staff goes there to fill orders.
Increasingly gregarious, we hopped down the street to Kama (Renai Rd., Sec. 4, Lane 266, Alley 16, #3. Tel: 2784-4601) and entered a whole different world of Tibetan Buddhism -- a much smaller version of the Buddha Bar in Paris. Kama enchants a more mature crowd. The cinnabar walls are painted with Tibetan characters, while glass partitions separate Chinese-style silk sofas. While you can see other patrons, it lacks the fishbowl sensation of Naomi's.
Given the exotic quality of the surroundings, we decided to order the Veuve Clicquot Rose Reserve 95 (NT$4,000, retail NT$2,500). Certainly the most attractive in terms of color, the wine is truly a golden-hued rose. Our earlier thirst somewhat slaked, it was pleasant just to stare at the effect of light on the wine. The Rose Reserve 95 has the same structure as the Vintage Reserve 95, but with 12 to 18% Pinot Noir from Bouzy. The subdued, easygoing ambience -- along with continued assaults on the bottle -- soon sent conversation drifting to travel, restaurants, and dinner parties.
Stumbling out the door -- well at least I wouldn't have except I suspect that Nicholls woman pushed me (she has always been jealous of my wine and food columns) -- we ventured over to Champagne 1 (75 Anhe Rd., Sec. 1. Tel: 2755-7976), literally a stone's throw away as one of our more adventurous members determined to his satisfaction.
We lolled comfortably on the sofas ready to tuck into the next bubbly as owner/manager Jackie Lee expounded on the various attributes of his nearly 100 varieties of champagne. Nicholls accurately gauged the mood of the crowd, selecting a Krug Grande Cuvee (NT$5,500). This little baby was rated a 96 out of 100 by Wine Spectator magazine in October 2002.
"One whiff and you know this is serious stuff," said the house's tasting notes. "The aromas of baking brioche, coconut, candied citrus, and leather pick up roasted coffee and grilled nuts on the palate, permeating the senses. A unique champagne experience." To that we sang out in unison, "Amen!"
For pie in the sky, you cannot beat the Marco Polo Lounge on the 38th floor of the Far Eastern Plaza Hotel (201 Dunhua S. Rd., Sec. 2. Tel: 2378-8888, ext. 5952). Sophisticated and sedate, Marco Polo serves up a wide range of wines to international clientele from NT$1,200 per bottle or champagnes from NT$2,200 per bottle. The bar arcs around the round tower, offering stunning views of Taipei.
Striking in its gold, cream and gray elegance, People (B1, 191 Anhe Rd., Sec. 2. Tel: 2735-2288) is entered via a minimalist concrete stairway, which leads past bonsai trees and a small bamboo grove. Entering through the massive metal doors -- they're automatic, so wait -- you have the option of either going to the left to eat simple Chinese stir-fry dishes at Shintori Restaurant or hanging with a hip, young, mostly local crowd in the sprawling, high-ceilinged bar to the right.
The crème de la crème of champagne bars, Champagne II (169 Anhe Rd., Sec. 2. Tel: 6638-1880) is the place to see and be seen -- and you'd better get here early or know someone in the management or seeing is all you will be doing. Don't even think of trying to impress them with your CEO or ambassadorial status. The people who come to this bar own subsidiaries bigger than your company. The décor and flow at Champagne II are far superior to Champagne I, though both are equally well stocked. The highlight is the long, white marble bar, which glows courtesy of interior lighting.
If you feel like dancing, head across the street to Carnegie's (100 Anhe Rd., Sec. 2. Tel: 2325-4433), though don't tell manager Bob Marshall that you have been doing the lounge and champagne bar circuit. Check out the posters in the bathroom taking the piss out of sofa-style lounge bars. That said, Carnegie's not only sells champagnes but also reigns supreme when it comes to choice of cocktails and you will have no shortage of opportunities to meet people here.
For more laid-back fun and frivolity, nothing beats the long bar at Watersheds (123 Wenchang St., the first light south of Xinyi Rd. Tel: 2707-6121) -- sofas downstairs. Be sure to give ace bartender Timmy a hard time; you'll get stronger drinks. Or try friendly Tickle My Fantasy (8 Anhe Rd., Sec. 2. Tel: 2709-0106) next door.
The best place for live jazz in elegant, Chinese-themed surroundings is China Pa (145 Anhe Rd., Sec. 1. Tel: 2702-7011). The food is simple, stir-fried Chinese, but wine, champagne, and mixed drinks are available. Plush, purple velvet drapes, golden gauze glittering in billows from the ceiling, and distinctive Chinese antiques give this lounge bar a taste of 1930s Shanghai.
Purpo (Anhe Rd., Sec. 1, Lane 127, #6. Tel: 2708-9086), as the name suggests, is dominated by its purple décor and Baroque mirrors and fittings. A quiet alternative away from the madding crowd if tete a tetes are in order.
While certain fishes such as salmon and turbot go well with sparkling wine, baking and grilling concentrate natural oils, giving such dishes a fishy taste. Herbs, particularly dill, and lemon slices in the poaching stock help overcome this problem.
Try Salsa Bistro's abalone empanaditas with fresh parsley sauce. Given the lack of hot oils in Salsa Bistro's fresh chili sauce, this can be enjoyed as well in moderation. Ceviche -- fresh fish marinated in lemon juice -- is an attractive option. For main courses, ponder the lovely grilled salmon or panfried mackerel with basil sauce. The baked vegetarian corn pastry complements champagne as well. Stay away from pates, red meats and tropical fruit -- low acidity and high sugar levels in the latter make wine harsh and acidic.