This venue is now closed.
Berliner Johannes Röwert, the owner of Bei Luo Bread Bar, seems to know a thing or two about hipster appeal. His new deli-café proclaims its alternative intentions from the get-go; emblazoned below the main shop sign is this additional subtitle: ‘Mean beans and badass bread’. Inside, walls are decorated with arty photography for sale, while indie music murmurs in the background – enough to keep the Gulou crowd happy, if the obligatory hutong setting hasn’t already done so.
With the café so-named, you might expect a sandwich selection with witty monikers – perhaps something like ‘the unbearable lightness of brie-ing’. Instead, the management wisely keeps it simple. In place of a fixed menu, customers pair their choice of three styles of bread – light, medium and dark (10RMB, 12RMB and 15RMB per serving) – with toppings. These rotate depending on market availability and include a variety of vegetables (5RMB) and cheeses, cold meat cuts and jams (all 10RMB each). The pick-and-mix approach is a refreshing solution for those who know exactly how they like their sandwiches, but can’t stomach the quality at Subway.
The calibre of the food here is certainly high: the ‘dark’ bread we order arrives still moist, from having been baked that morning, yet dense – as a good Germanic loaf should be. The Swiss cheese is just the right amount of pungent. But we were disappointed by the quantities, which are, well, mean. The bread slices are less than 1cm thick and the cheese is shaved paper-fine. This may be how families in Germany take supper – the German word for dinner is abendbrot, literally ‘evening bread’, and consists of thin slices accompanied by several different spreads – but when you’ve paid 25RMB for this combo, you expect a doorstopper sandwich, or at least more than a couple of anorexic slices. Similarly, the carrot cake (25RMB) is a scrumptious square of delicately balanced spices, but without the cream-cheese topping it feels a tad miserly.
The service here is sometimes unprofessional, if endearing: our English waiter, having just told us that the parmesan was not available, returned with it, muttering, ‘Sorry, I’m the worst waiter ever.’ Despite this, and the paucity of portions, Bei Luo Bread Bar has the potential to become another neighbourhood stalwart alongside Café Zarah and Alba – helped by its fast WiFi, comfy seating and decent coffee from Rickshaw Roasters.
Ultimately, what makes this café worth travelling out of your own postcode for is the pasta selection, created by the Italian head chef and also kept minimal. There is only one type available – ribbons of tagliatelle are freshly cut and cooked to order – but there are more than half a dozen accompanying sauces to choose from. The cuts in the bacon sauce (40RMB) are meatier than the usual fatty slabs favoured in Beijing, and together with the house tomato paste make a wonderfully warming, hearty dish.
We also ordered the aubergine, curious as to how the chef would deal with Chinese eggplants (35RMB), which are typically more watery than their Mediterranean brethren. Instead of grilling the aubergine, he transforms it into a rich paste that lovingly coats the strands of firm tagliatelle. It is a perfectly comforting dish saved from blandness by a subtle hint of chilli and is a darn sight more filling than the sarnies.
Mean beans and badass bread? We think it’s the pasta that makes this place really kick butt.