Remember how it all began?
So yes, it really happened. Around 8 o’clock last night, Lêe opened the gate that guards the door that leads to the lobby that opens onto the dining room at Hop Sing Laundromat and started allowing actual human beings (as opposed to cajoling members of the press, though there were a fair number of us in the crowd as well) into the bar.
It was gorgeous. It was bigger than it had ever seemed before (an effect of all the detritus of a long construction being removed, no doubt). It was lit with a hundred candles, the flames reflecting off of antique mirrors and lovingly polished and reconstructed fixtures and filled with the sounds of muted voices and music. The tables filled slowly as Lêe paced the entries–two and three and four of his friends, enemies and stalkers being let in at a time–but by the time he was done, the room was buzzing with conversation and quiet music.
And then the drinks began arriving…
I know that there are a certain number of you out there who will not believe anything good we say about this place–those who have been complaining since day 1 that Hop Sing was all hype, that Lêe had the whole lot of us food writers in his pocket from the start, that the whole thing was a pipe-dream, doomed to fail since the day it was born. You know who you are. More to the point, we know who you are. And I’m not going to win any of you over by saying that Hop Sing Laundromat has the magic–that it is one of those rooms that makes you feel special just by being in it.
I’m not going to convince you by saying that this is one of the most beautiful and unique bars around–that Lêe’s obsessive attention to every little detail pays off in the way the light seems to cradle each table, catching here and there in a gleaming shaker or the curve of an antique chair back. Or how the acoustics make pleasant conversation possible without yelling even when the music is playing and every other customer in the place is also talking. Or laughing. Or shouting for someone at the other end of the bar. His designs (custom garnish trays, custom shakers, wells and racks made for speed) pay off in terms of service, too. He had three bartenders working to a mostly-full house and making everything–everything–to order, and yet no one seemed to have to wait for a drink. Or a second or a third.
If you’re already predisposed to hatin’, I’m not going to change your mind by telling you what balls it took for Lee to look at a room full of food writers, booze writers, cocktail freaks and weirdoes–some of whom were no doubt there just to root for Hop Sing’s failure–and to choose as the very first drink…a screwdriver.
Yeah, vodka and orange juice, nothing more. Still frothy from the squeezer and the shaker. I’m not going to win anyone over by saying it was the best screwdriver I’ve ever had. Or that the single best cocktail of the night–which was also the single best cocktail I’ve had in months, maybe longer–was another two-stepper of faintly ridiculous conception: fresh grape juice and dark rum, nothing more. Art and I sat at the table for ten minutes trying to prize it apart, thinking that we tasted honey, that it was made with iced tea, that it had to be some kind of whiskey drink made of magical whiskey with no burn, that left no lingering taste of smoke on the tongue.
But no. Just freshly-squeezed grape juice and dark El Dorado rum aged 15 years.
There was a gin drink that was a failure. Then Lêe appeared (in a finely cut suit and his glasses made out of forks) to say that it was a deliberate failure–that we should now taste this version which was made with a different gin and didn’t taste nearly so much like a foot.
Anejo tequila. Strawberries. Bourbon. We drank and drank. Hop Sing’s bartenders served and served. It was just as good, just as dramatic, just as unique and maddeningly right as we’d all been promised it would be, and there was a sense (at least at our table) that the waiting, the delays, the strangeness–it’d all been worth it. Lee had promised only that he was going to make a great cocktail bar for the city of Philadelphia. And that was just what he’s done. Nothing more, but also nothing less.
But something tells me that nothing we say is ever going to convince some of you of that, either.