Actually there were two Best Cocktails last year, but since their success revolved around one rather unusual and very scrumptious ingredient I’m calling it a tie.
Who knew that honeydew melon could be a playa on the chic ‘n’ trendy cocktail circuit?
At Hop Sing Laundromat in Philly’s Chinatown, I fell in love with a simple but magical potion involving a top-shelf rye and freshly pressed honeydew melon juice. It was a wildly aromatic wonder, mingling the soft summery sweetness of honeydew with the warm, dry spice of rye whiskey. Served ice cold, straight up in an old-fashioned champagne coupe ( the shallow alternative to the flute), it was exciting, inspiring and delicious.
Hop Sing Laundromat (above) is showing up on plenty of Best of 2012 lists. It’s a quirky, fantastical place that channels the days and drinks of pre-Prohibition and the Speakeasy era. Opened last summer by a dapper Asian gent who calls himself simply “Lee”, it became an instant sensation, thanks to creative, meticulously crafted cocktails, a supremely comfortable space, and a definite flair for the dramatic.
My early September adventure began when my son, Nicholas, and I arrived at an unmarked door in Chinatown a little after midnight on a Saturday evening and rang the buzzer. The street was dark and deserted. Nicholas assured me that he knew “the drill,” but I fretted nonetheless that either #1 I wouldn’t pass muster with the bouncer who’d open the door or #2 I’d end up getting mugged in what seemed to me a rather sketchy part of town.
After several minutes the door peeped open and a “host” escorted a group of very happy guests out, wishing them a good evening. He told us someone would be with us shortly. That someone was “Lee” himself who opened the door after a few more minutes and asked what we wanted. Nicholas told him we’d come for cocktails -- seemed like a no-duh question and answer to me but apparently it's part of the schtick. Lee asked if we knew the rules. Nicholas assured him that he did, but Lee nevertheless ran down the list:
No cell phones, no cameras, no other recording devices, and cash only. Apparently we both looked pretty good, because Lee skipped his usual spiel about “dress” requirements that ban flip-flops, sandals, sneakers of any kind, shorts and hats. Oh yeah, patrons aren’t supposed to bug the bartenders with questions about what’s in each drink either, which is why my above description of my own personal honeydew heaven is short on specifics.
When the eccentric Lee ushered us inside, I was dumbfounded by the scene that unfolded -- a cavernous, dimly-lit space with high ceilings, exposed brick, church pews, bookshelves lined with weighty tomes, a massive carved wood bar lighted by real candles, and a floor covered completely with shiny pennies. Elegant, well-spaced tables were tucked into every alcove, stools lined the nickel-plated bar.
All Hop Sing cocktails are unique and inspired, and made with fruit juices squeezed on the spot, homemade syrups and bitters, and an astonishing collection of top-shelf booze, said to number 1,000 bottles. (Photo of the Henry "Box" Brown cocktail by Robert Neroni.) Glasses are vintage style, ice is custom made, servers are polite and professional. Most drinks (each of which is said to have two-ounces of alcohol) cost $12, a bargain by any modern standard, a downright steal given the mesmerizing performance that is Hop Sing Laundromat.
Honeydew also showed up in my glass at Franklin Mortgage and Investment Co. another Philadelphia lounge/bar seeking to recreate the days of Prohibition. (Am I the only one who doesn’t get this fascination with one of the nastier periods of American history?)
Named for the company that served as the front for what was once the largest illicit booze ring in the country, the subterranean Franklin Mortgage and Investment Co.-- A Drinking Establishment (just off Rittenhouse Square) captures the flair of the pre-Prohibition era with its décor, music, and drinks.
We arrived early on a blustery October evening and managed to snag a cozy corner booth right away (I’m told patrons routinely wait an hour or more on the sidewalk in everything from snowstorms to sauna baths). Based on my experience, these classy, creative cocktails are well worth the wait.
My Starbuck Swizzle was a light and luscious concoction of Tanqueray gin, Bonal (a French aperitif), green Chartreuse, house-made honeydew syrup, fresh pineapple and lime juices and a few drops of orange bitters. Each fruit announced its presence loud and clear; the gin contributed the perfect herbal balance. I also love the Emma Frost, a glitzy production of Plymouth Gin, Cocchi Americano, fresh lemon juice, house-made grapefruit syrup and a few drops of crème de Violette.
The rest of the ever-changing menu at Franklin Mortgage is equally enticing, with all the ingredients of the day – Rittenhouse Rye, Buffalo Trace Bourbon, Becherovka, Bitter Truth Bitters – shaken and stirred by a talented team that’s having a whale of a good time doing its job. Mixologist/bartender Al Sotak (pictured above) will be honored next month as one of Philadelphia’s 2013 Rising Stars by StarChefs.com.