left corner left corner
China Daily Website

Ribs midwestern style

Updated: 2015-07-31 08:34
By Mike Peters (China Daily)

Perched on a lotus lake in Beijing's north, Windy City Ballroom serves up generous plates of American comfort food. Mike Peters tucks in.

"They are a rich dark brown, tangy with sauce and falling-off-the-bone tender. Wood smoke is palpable around the plate," chef Dustin Merrett says of his meaty signature ribs.

"They are rubbed with our own spice mix and smoked with cherry and peach wood for two hours. Then we douse them with an American beer blend, wrap them up in tinfoil and throw them back in the smoker at a lower temperature for approximately another two hours.

"Before they're served, they are reheated via the sous vide method (in vacuum-sealed bags) and then slathered in barbecue sauce - and broiled until the sauce bubbles."

The menu at Windy City Ballroom, home of American comfort food, Chicago-style, is huge. But today our dinnertime visit is all about ribs: The Tuesday special is a whole rack of 12 ribs for just 358 yuan ($58). Be still my heart.

My Chinese roommate is vaguely shocked.

"I didn't know you were such a meat-eater," he says as the immense plate comes out.

Born and raised in Texas, where Sunday dinner is grilled in the backyard if weather permits, I am a bit religious about ribs. Merrett is from Canada, another place where beef and wide open spaces are a central part of life. Before any food comes out of the kitchen, my nose is hyper-aware of the big brick smoker the chef's team has built from scratch out back.

It's going to be a good day.

Now in China for nearly a decade, Merrett was part of the team that made Home Plate BBQ a hit in Beijing. His menu at Windy City is entirely different - based on popular platters from Chicago - though comfort food remains king.

The restaurant has been around since 2012 (if there's an actual ballroom, we missed it). But it only really started drawing the foodies out to the northern suburbs a few months back when Merrett took over the kitchen and started experimenting, as he's known to do.

A cocktail connoisseur, he's as focused on the bar as he is on the food menu - and occasionally they seem to meet, as in the pumpkin-pie cocktail (45 yuan). Perfect for those who are tempted to start a meal with dessert, it comes in a big martini glass and tastes like my momma's kitchen smells right before the Thanksgiving holiday. The signature beverage, however, may be the vanilla-bourbon iced tea, not as sweet as pie but equally smile-inducing. A splash of lime gives this drink an unexpected edge on the first sip, but the surprise is quickly addicting. So are the margaritas and the bellinis, the latter frozen and loaded with sangria as well as peachy goodness - perfect for a relaxing summer evening.

Can't find a good hot dog in China? Look no further: Merrett serves up the real thing in a fresh bun totted with plenty of cheese, onions and chunks of jalapeno.

Wild mushroom soup is a fancier treat, as is a pasta bowl studded with fat shrimps, mussels and a delicate cheese sauce. The chef's creativity flies more freely with the black miso cod, pan-seared with a citrus-sake glaze and mushroom risotto.

After downing our mess of ribs, with some nicely grilled vegetables on the side, we pass on dessert, settling back after dinner instead with the bellini sweetness that lingers in our glasses. On another visit, we saved room for a tasty apple crumble, another example of the way Merrett takes "diner food" to an exalted level.

Happily, prices are reasonable, thanks in part to a sister Chinese restaurant and resort hotel in the same complex, which the chef says gives him more volume-buying power.

Windy City's chow is served up in a laid-back dining room or on the expansive deck outside that stretches out over a small lake, now bursting with lotus blossoms. If mosquitoes love you, expect to be romanced at twilight if you didn't bring a bit of bug spray. If you forget, the problem may solve itself: An acrobatic group of small bats dances above the water at sunset - mysteriously, they prefer a meal of mosquitos to Merrett's ribs.

Contact the writer at michaelpeters@chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily 07/31/2015 page19)