De Refter is a small, well-pitched bar, smart but unstuffy, something like a handshake between a British gastro-pub and a Brussels bistro. Right now, it doesn’t show the easy charm of, say, Le Cafe des Stagiaires
, on Yongkang Lu – there are some kitschy mis-steps with the decor and it could benefit from feeling a bit more lived-in – but, like most good drinks dens, it’s warm and snug, and time will lend it more character.
American co-owner Eric Oetting, an entrepreneur who’s been in China since 2005, brought in a specialist gastropub planner to overhaul the Jinxian Lu space that used to house Bliss and bolster their craft beer credentials. In a further sign of how seriously they take their beer, Oetting says that De Refter are looking at having their own brewed in Belgium.
There are notable flaws, though. Firstly, with the drinks menu: while it’s impressive in its diversity, even bona fide
beerists would find it difficult to navigate. A list of over 40 mostly Belgian bottled beers, without even basic descriptions, is arrantly inaccessible and speaks to only the most clued-in drinkers. What’s a Rochefort 10 (75RMB), for instance? Don’t know? Well, it is, in fact, a hard, dark, complex, heavy-bodied Trappist (named after the kind of monks who brew it) with a super-strong alcohol base probably only suitable for experienced hop heads.
But, aside from being lumped into fairly broad-ranging categories, you don’t get any of that from the menu. Not even the ABVs are listed (a whopping 11.3 per cent, in the Rochefort 10’s case). So caution advised: some of these beers have the potential to singularly change the course of an evening.
From the five-strong draft menu, we tried the Chimay Red Cap (another Trappist, 65RMB), a smooth, dark but not too bitter beer with a slight sweetness that makes it readily drinkable considering its seven per cent ABV. From the bottles, we took a punt on the St Feuillien Dark (65RMB, eight per cent ABV), a brown ale that showed more temper, with a lasting, frothy head and some spicy, raisin-y bitterness on the end.
There’s much to come back for: the attractively bottled Delirium Nocturnum (65RMB), four different Kastel Beers (from 65RMB), a Grimbergen blonde (65RMB) and the Frankziskaner black, a dark wheat (55RMB). Plus, there are some more familiar brands on draft including Stella Artois (40RMB) and Hoegaarden (65RMB).
Service is heart on sleeve and likeable if haphazard. A free bowl of sweet popcorn would have been more welcome if it hadn’t arrived just before our pleasing fish and chips (80RMB), with generous-sized flounder and impressive chips (made with Dutch potatoes, we’re told, known for their natural sweetness).
Food-wise, stick to the easy comfort dishes: on subsequent visits, the British-style breakfast (45RMB), with circular pieces of formed bacon, felt like roadside café fare, and neither the Flemish-style beef stew with beer (135RMB) or chicken with forest mushrooms (90RMB) were memorable. But the moreish Belgian chilli fries, topped with gloppy, molten gouda cheese (55RMB), certainly were.
Still, the beer’s the thing. And, despite glitches, the range, atmosphere and location here is enough to put De Refter securely in league with our other default, go-to boozers for proper brews.Alexander Barlow