Back Alley Bistro

It’s no secret that one of the best burgers in town is served –‑ somewhat incongruously – at the nail salon/bar Frost Nails. But now Beijing’s diners have a more sophisticated place to get their teeth into these juicy buns, as Frost’s owner, Jeff Powell, has opened Back Alley Bistro next door. This new space has a speakeasy feel to it: there’s a discreet sign outside and, on entering, the first thing you see is a brick wall; walk past this partition and you will discover a grown‑up diner with leather booths, vintage posters, spot‑lighting and a soundtrack of jazz.

This slice of high‑class Americana is the perfect setting to try the chef’s seemingly simple but well‑executed meals. Powell, who also consulted for Flamme – the Sanlitun joint with a reputation for good steaks – keeps the menu rotating, but with a heavy weighting towards meat dishes. The Frost Burger is a steal at 45RMB, although it’s sadly only available at lunchtime. This generous, one‑inch‑thick serving of mince is cooked just right, so that every mouthful is moist. Powell has enough confidence in his cuts not to oversauce them or overpower them with spicing; he simply lets good meat speak for itself. The same can be said of the Australian grain‑fed rib eye steak (148RMB), which is a slab kept tender in its natural jusand served with broccoli, garlic frites and some creamed fresh horseradish that is dished up, with a touchy of whimsy, in a shot glass.

The standout dishes here are the gumbo (40RMB) and the oxtail (138RMB). The latter, braised for six hours in a red wine sauce, slides easily off the bone and is so soft it’s almost like it’s melting in your mouth. The gumbo options vary; on the night we visited, we tried the duck, andouille (a spicy, smoked sausage) and chicken variety. This hearty soup is a meal in itself, the dark, gloopy Cajun broth being spiced just enough to warm, rather than assault, your taste buds.

We had heard glowing reports about the chicken under a brick (118RMB) and were keen to try it for ourselves. Brined, butterflied and cooked on the grill under, yes, a brick – the weight ensuring that all of the chicken cooks evenly – this bird was one of the most succulent we’ve sampled in Beijing. But, despite the perfectly tenderised quality of the meat, we found the overall flavour a little bland for our tastes, even with the accompaniment of the braised greens and panisse (fried chickpea cakes). Instead, we’d advise ordering a side of the shaved Brussels sprouts (38RMB); doused in sherry vinegar, these tart, crunchy greens help give the chicken some bite. To finish the meal, we selected the apple crisp (39RMB) and were left satisfied by this comforting dish of caramelised, spiced apples topped with chewy oats, and delivered with a side of vanilla ice cream.

The service at Back Alley Bistro is not perfect: we had to remind the chef, who doubles up as the waiter, to bring our drinks order, and some might find it off‑putting that he spends a lot of time at the front of house, joining in with his customers’ conversations (although we personally enjoyed this friendly approach). But we feel that all but the pickiest of restaurant‑goers will be happy to overlook these minor irritations in favour of the food. This is a high temple to good meat, and we predict that the city’s carnivores will soon be worshipping at its altar.

First appeared in Time Out Beijing on February 7, 2013.