In these frigid winter winds it’s easy to pass right by Vin Vie, an inventive new Japanese izakaya near Chaoyang Park. Its address lists it as being on Maizidian Jie but it is actually located on Nongzhanguan Bei Lu, behind a hole-in-the-wall Sichuan eatery and through a grungy gate across from an adult sex shop. Make the effort to find it and you’ll have the reward of excellent and simple food in a convivial setting.
After two years of serving Japanese home-style food at a prior location on Xinyuan Nan Lu under the name Vin Zai, it has since moved and been reinvented as a modernised izakaya, offering bar food on mostly small plates. And that’s the point of an izakaya; it’s a place to drink and be merry while nibbling on Japanese food that is often as inventive as it is unpredictable.
Japanese hospitality is legendary and the welcome you receive at Vin Vie follows custom with thoughtfulness, going so far as to stack a pile of blue Ikea blankets on a chair near the entrance for when it’s cold. When we visited, cheery cooks were decked out in Santa outfits for the holiday season. Resting near to the bar and open kitchen, a chalkboard displays a colourful drawing of butcher’s cuts, found in the pork and chicken dishes that are available throughout the menu.
The pace of dining at Vin Vie is unhurried, and the key is to take your time. Order your drinks (which is the main point here) and pair with a couple of dishes, then order more as you go along. Repeat until satisfied.
One of the early highlights is the blackboard special of ankimo, a Japanese delicacy of monkfish liver (32RMB) served thinly sliced with shreds of pickled daikon radish on top. Buttery and briny, the liver is meltingly soft, pairing perfectly with a glass of Iichiko, a wheat-based shochu (40RMB a glass).
Grilled skewers of cartilaginous chicken knees (32RMB) and fatty pork (which is really neck meat; 14RMB) are can’t-miss items from a glass-encased unit at the bar where one employee masterfully mans skewers over hot coals, without a hint of the scent of the fire inside.
A can of sardines (35RMB), listed on the menu under the title ‘The excellent article’ is excellent. Served warm in the can, it is a clever lesson in the simplicity of presentation, and delicious when dressed with specks of sun-dried tomatoes and capers. But a major reason why Vin Vie has a bright future is its steamed pork belly (55RMB), which comes listed as ‘Steam!’ on the menu. The sesame sauce, brought out in individual bowls and a pale tan in colour, is surprisingly light and creamy, and drinkable as a soup. The pork belly, cut thin and topped with roasted sesame seeds on a bed of bean sprouts, is a grand arrival and comes served in a large bamboo steamer. Barely seasoned, it remains light, even after a plunge in the sauce, and is easily devoured.
Vin Vie only offers three dessert choices (under the funky Japanese title of ‘Boy sweets club’). Make sure to order the ‘I’m a pride of French toast’ (34RMB) – thick, fried slices of baguette drenched in milk and egg but served with a gooey syrup that isn’t real maple, although a scoop of ice cream makes it better. There’s also a chocolate option that arrives as two slabs of mousse, both deeply flavoured without being too rich.
Another chalkboard holds notes on different wines, but a glance at other tables hints as to the popularity of bottles of Rumball (260RMB), served in ice buckets. It’s an off-the-menu Australian sparkling red wine that’s a favourite among repeat diners and clearly needs no introduction.
If you come on the right night, you may even find English-speaking staff who are friendly and able to help those who are Chinese- and Japanese-illiterate to navigate the menu’s confusing ‘English’ translations. Vin Vie can feel a little hidden, like all the best Japanese eateries, but while its location – at end of an alley in the depths of Liangmaqiao – makes finding it a chore, it is absolutely worth the effort.