Wang Xu slapped a ribeye on the grill and waited for it to sizzle. As The Local's chef readied the steak’s seasoning and sauce, owner Kenn Bermel popped into the kitchen and began a bit of his own good-natured ribbing.
“Wang’s a bigger guy. I am too, but you don’t see a lot of Chinese guys who are very portly,” Bermel says about his head chef. “I was joking with Wang about that one day and he said: ‘Kenn, why would you trust a skinny chef?' He really enjoys making western food, and it shows.”
Bermel says Wang—who honed his skills in the kitchen of the five-star Kunming Hotel—has made the bar and grill stand out in Santlitun’s competitive pub grub scene with his slew of new steak options. Thanks in part to these improvements, The Local has garnered “Best Steak (Casual)” and “Best American” nominations in the Beijinger’s ongoing Reader Restaurant Awards (vote here through March 8.)
In fact Wang is so proficient in American cuisine that his colleagues have taken to teasing him as mercilessly as Bermel does. “His background is in Western cuisine, so when he cooks for the [Chinese] staff, they aren’t very happy,” Bermel says.
That jolly camaraderie, combined with a refined skill set, has helped The Local shake off some of its old trappings. Three years ago the establishment opened its doors as Brussels, a bar that specialised in Belgian beers and standard pub fare. Bermel was only a manager at the time, who watched the original owners amicably, but steadily, depart to start families and new businesses over the next year and a half.
By then, Bermel was very eager to take over, but there was one factor that left him hesitant.
“One of the original owners, who grew up in Belgium and had extensive experience with the country’s food, left. I had no experience with Belgian food, so continuing [as Brussels] would have been foolish,” Bermel says. "I was hesitant about changing the name at first, I wasn’t sure how people would see it, if they’d think we closed down and had entirely new ownership, or if we’d come across as fly-by-night.”
Those concerns proved to be negligible. “I realised I shouldn’t have been hesitant. Now, nothing is stopping me from having a German beer tasting event or another Fourth of July quiz, which was a big hit this past summer. If we did any of that, and were still called Brussels, people would get really confused.” Bermel adds that he is happy to have a broader name that allows The Local to experiment without raising the clientele’s eyebrows, before adding with a laugh: “The only thing we might not be able to pull off is teppanyaki or something like that.”
That flexibility allows Bermel to add his own expertise to one of the The Local’s menus staples: the chicken wings, which have earned the establishment a nomination in “Best Wings” category. His upbringing in Buffalo, New York, has been indispensable in that regard. Bermel adds: “My friends and family taught me great wing recipes. The most important thing I learned was the key ingredient, Frank’s RedHot sauce, which is really hard to find in Beijing, but more than worth buying by the crateload.”
He goes on to rhyme off the other key ingredients for his buffalo wings (RMB55 for 8 pieces). Those simplistic, but essential, ingredients include butter, vinegar and pepper. Bermel says his hometown friends, who own pubs of their own, taught him to baste the wings for longer stretches in order to heighten their spiciness. To abet that fiery flavor, Bermel suggests that The Local’s clientele order a side of Blue Cheese dressing. "Dipping them in Blue Cheese dressing helps offset the spiciness. To me, this works better than other kinds of dressing, although some people would rather order Ranch.”
Bermel is more than correct in that regard. During a recent visit to The Local, this reporter was left parched by the wings, and regretted not ordering the Blue Cheese to blunt the overwhelming sauce. Meanwhile, the tender Ribeye Steak (RMB208 for 250g) certainly proved its mettle as a TBJ restaurant awards nominee, although a greater variety of side veggies (such as carrots or even cauliflower, instead of solely broccoli and asparagus) would have gone a long way to round out the dish.
Bermel says he’s open to such critiques, along with far more routine gripes from his clientele. He credits that outlook with helping him clinch the “Best Manager” nomination he's received in this year's Restaurant Awards. "I’m glad people feel that I should get that kind of nomination. I hope that it has to do with customer service. When I’m a customer, and a restaurant makes a mistake, all I want is for them is to fix it, then I’m happy. I hope that’s what people see, that we’re not just trying to run a restaurant but also constantly improve it. Because, no matter what, you’re going to make mistakes in this business, so you always have to be ready to take care of them.”
The Local is closed today and tomorrow (Feb 19 and Feb 20) for CNY. It reopens on Saturday for evenings only, 4pm until late. On March 1 it will resume its regular hours, noon until late.
Images: Kyle Mullin, Kenn Bermel
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