For a bar named after new beginnings (and not Christopher Nolan's 2010 blockbuster), Sanlitun speakeasy Inception treads some pretty familiar ground. Owned by the same cocktail progenitor behind Hidden House
, Ming Bar
, Inception boasts a similar aesthetic to each of these prequels, just on a swankier, larger scale.
The establishment of speakeasy-themed bars in Beijing has always been a strange exercise in nostalgia, considering the fact that China never actually experienced a US-style Prohibition era. That being said, we sort of get it. With its wood-panelled walls, leather upholstery and Sistine Chapel-esque frescoes, Inception, like all good speakeasies, offers a glamorous taste of the illicit despite (hopefully) being in no actual danger of getting shut down by authorities – it's worth noting that it does neighbour the former home of the late, great Great Leap Brewing #12. And we all know how that ended
It's a Saturday night when we visit Inception, and the cocktail bar, much like its surrounds, is disconcertingly empty – a fact that could be linked to Great Leap's closure. A quiet bar is not inherently a bad thing (who doesn't like an offbeat haunt to lounge in undisturbed?) however when you've got the immense square footage of Inception, it's particularly striking. With Xingfucun's previously boisterous buzz now reduced to a murmur – its erstwhile punters departing for pub-friendlier pastures – Inception's got its work cut out attracting a brand-new clientele.
Cocktails sit at roughly the 80RMB mark, with a classic menu offering a range of the usual suspects, including Negronis, Old Fashioneds and martinis. For tipples that are a little less run-of-the-mill, the custom cocktail list is infused with exotic flourishes and enigmatic drink titles such as 'Dream as a horse', 'The mystery of everything' and 'Winnie's love'. Whiskey lovers will also find themselves well catered for with an extensive selection starting from 85RMB per glass depending on vintage.
Out of a unique bunch, the standout cocktail is 'Napping', a rum-based cocktail that pays tribute to everyone's favourite pastime with avocado liqueur, coconut and pineapple and lemon juice. Refreshing and zingy, this isn't a cocktail to sleep on. Slightly less invigorating is 'Rhythmical language', its delicate lapsang souchong and oolong tea flavours too mild to make any real lasting impression. 'A taste of the south', meanwhile, melds dark rum, Frangelico, chocolate bitters and black sesame paste resulting in a cocktail that's rich and smoky, though perhaps overly dominated by sesame. What's slightly baffling, however, is the fact that it's served in a square wooden box, flying in the face of traditional wisdom that dictates rounded, non-porous vessels tend to make the most user-friendly drinking experiences.
Despite its slow start, Inception makes for an undeniably beautiful bar, its dapper interior doing much to create an inviting ambiance even in the absence of packed-out booths. And with slight refinement to its drinks menu it might turn around the prospects of Xingfucun yet.
By Leanne Wong