It’s a Thursday evening, approaching midnight. Shanghaiist is sitting at a bar in Sinan Mansions but it doesn’t feel all that real. It could be because we’re on our fourth daiquiri but we think it’s for other reasons. It’s not everyday that you sip cocktails in a bar that’s still being constructed, drills buzzing and all, and a worker is perched a few meters up above installing…the lights, we think. Directly in front, there’s a row of bartenders making a ruckus with their cocktail shaking training. Ice rattles loudly in the metal shakers as Apothecary partner Leon Lee observes the whole scene watchfully. Clearly, we’re sitting in some type of twilight zone.
What we’re being privy to is Apothecary cocktail bar and kitchen as it readies the opening of its Shanghai location. (Actually, we have bragging rights. Lee let us know we were the first people to be served at the new bar.) The place is a joint project between Leon Lee and Max E. Levy — the latter you may know as the masterful chef from Bei, Opposite House. The duo have already created a stir on Beijing’s dining and drinking scene for their emphasis on high-quality ingredients and attention to detail. One part mixologist’s empyrean, one part fine Creole kitchen, Apothecary is now bringing its love of great food and drinks down south (and finally returning Creole food to Shanghai, we might add.)
The following is the conversation we had with Lee:
Can you please tell us about the hardware of the new place? This Apothecary is larger than the original one in Beijing and lays claim to a dining room.
Sure, Apothecary Shanghai sits on the 4th floor of Sinan Mansions in one of the modern buildings (we’re on the Chongqing Lu end of the complex). It weighs in at 240sqm and will seat 25 in the bar area and 60 in the dining room. In warmer months, we’ll have seating for 20 on the terrace (overlooking the treetops of Fuxing Park). Our kitchen is open until 1am on weekends and 12am on weekdays, which means late supper and midnight snacks.
The space is designed by Howard Ing, our partner and owner of the four Uo Kura Japanese restaurants in Shanghai (with their newest location directly under Apothecary in Sinan Mansions). With the design, we wanted to have some consistency between Beijing and Shanghai with the bottle displays but as the cities have rather different personalities, we tried to create some distinctive differences as well. In Shanghai, we lucked out with the high ceilings which allowed us to layer our seats so it is almost cinematic with a raised platform area facing the tree tops of Fuxing Park as seen through panoramic floor-to-ceiling windows. The long narrow room allowed us to separate the bar area from the main room, which we wanted to resemble a supper club of sorts.
How do you plan to use the larger space in the new dining room? Will we be seeing an expanded menu?
Compared to Beijing, the tables are slightly larger in size which will allow people to eat more comfortably in a restaurant atmosphere, whereas in Beijing, we only have a bar room and tend to do more food after 9pm for late dinners and cocktail nibbles. But the layout of the Shanghai space – separate bar and dining room – should allow greater numbers of diners in addition to imbibers in the know who nibble while they drink. We think of Apothecary as: Come after work for a drink and stay for dinner, come for dinner and stay for a drink, come for a drink and have a snack to compliment, have a late dinner with a drink to unwind, a weigh station before and after a night out for that first good drink or one to cap off a good night out.
Also, the windows and ample natural lighting makes Apothecary prime for brunch and lunch of which we will roll out later in Spring. The Shanghai menu will have some regional differences what with the ingredients available locally, for example, soft shell crab. In Shanghai, we also have the luxury of a larger prep kitchen which allows us to purchase whole organic pigs and built a smoker to make our house charcuterie, sausage, bacon, chops, and head cheese. We’ve been working with an organic farmer/supplier for a while now and getting some great western produce (sorrel, kale, chard, salad greens etc) to match the quality of our meats. We bake our own breads; let’s put it this way: My partner/chef Max E. Levy goes as far as to make our own sea salt.
As for drinks, we’ll work on utilizing more local ingredients since its proximity to the South means a lot more seasonal fruits and vegetables that translates to a wider variety of cocktails. We have over 100 cocktails on our menu already so it’ll take some time – the four seasons – in order to play around and see what works. When we feel that some of the stuff we’re working on aren’t lethal to public consumption, we’ll offer it on the down-low at the bar. Basically, it pays to sit at the bar and get to know your bartender as they should always have off-menu items on offer. After these products are tested at the bar, we’ll put the popular stuff on our regular menu and make it available to everyone. We do this in Beijing to encourage people to sit at the bar and so far, so good. Hopefully, this is something that we can carry over into Shanghai. We spend a lot of time training so it may be a while before we can realize this but then again, Apothecary was never meant to be something we could churn out overnight, so we’ll gradually unfurl our full menu and house cocktails when our bartenders get there in their training.
Apothecary’s always placed an astonishing emphasis on ingredients and little details. You make your own bitters, sausages, salt even. What else is homemade?
We try to make everything by hand whenever possible. Like I said before, we butcher whole pigs in-house to make 2 kinds of Tasso ham, Andouille sausage, maple-smoked bacon, head cheese, and all kinds of porcine goodness. We bake all of our own breads including a country-style loaf bread, sweet potato buns for our sliders, buttermilk biscuits (with buttermilk we make in-house), Italian style baguette, corn bread etc.
We built a smoker and are now able to do a lot more curing and smoking and hopefully, will be able to stick a lot of cocktail ingredients in there too.
We make all our own pickles, Creole cream cheese, and nearly everything else from the salt to ketchup and mustard — we make it all. And that’s just the stuff in the kitchen.
Conceptually, Apothecary is our idea of what a New Orleans brasserie in New York City or San Francisco would look like. To say this and that is “made in-house” (or “house-made) gets a bit redundant, so let’s just say we pay a lot of attention to the little details and strive to source high quality raw materials to make food and drinks that we can stand by. Our standard is that we want to do the simple things well. And yes, that pig skull in our display case was a whole pig.
On the bar side, I think there is definitely greater variety and a higher degree of bar techniques being employed in Shanghai. We’ve been to a lot of places with bartenders who make a lot of ingredients and turn out great cocktails, so we’re excited to be a part of what’s on offer here. We do try to make everything behind the bar and will be bringing in a lot of stuff not available in Shanghai ourselves. From 10 kinds of bitters, seasonal macerations/infusions, a bunch of syrups, tonics … and the list goes on. We’ve managed to get acquainted with a few of our suppliers who are helping us bring stuff into China and into Shanghai from Beijing. We’re especially excited to be the sole supplier of Rittenhouse Bottled-in-Bond 100 Proof Rye Whisky in China and will be making some old timey (plus some new concoctions as well) American cocktails, which wasn’t possible until rye came into China. So those Old Fashioned, Manhattans and Sazeracs? Yup, we serve them authentic like at Apothecary — with American rye whisky.
What are some of the key differences in sourcing between the north and south? How did that influence your decision to open up shop in Shanghai?
Behind the bar in Shanghai, we’re able to offer premium quality products as house pours because many of the brands have greater marketing budgets here or import their
products through Shanghai. The interesting thing is spirits are significantly cheaper in Shanghai compared to Beijing, but fruit and herbs are nearly double the price. I can’t help but think it strange that in Shanghai, the expensive stuff is cheap and the cheap stuff is expensive. However, that’s good news for our Shanghai customers because we’re offering house pours in Shanghai that would seem ridiculously lavish in Beijing.
What kind of unique liquors are available at Apothecary?
Old Fitzgerald Bottled-in-Bond 100 Proof bourbon and Rittenhouse Bottled-in-Bond 100 Proof rye makes very nice Old Fashioneds, Manhattans, and Sazeracs, Damoiseau Blanc rhum agricole makes Daiquiris and Mojitos taste like they came directly from squeezed sugar cane juice. Cuervo Black Medallion Anejo & El Jimador Blanco tequilas, Ketel One and Ciroc vodkas to name a few more great products that we are able to offer at plebeian prices.
What kind of niche does Apothecary fill in the Shanghai scene?
Max and I are pretty lucky to have met folks who have received us warmly to Shanghai: Nat and Marc at Fulton Place, Brad at Goga, and Austin Hu at Madison to name just a few who have been very welcoming to our coming down from Beijing. We just hope to hold a light to what they have realized already: high passion as opposed to high concept. In Beijing, we get a lot of hospitality and restaurant folks in late on weekdays for a bite and a drink after work (hint, hint).
Apothecary tends to attract a clientele who consider eating and drinking as a primary passion. It’s a joint to break bread with your friends and loved ones. That kind of warmth is what we’re about … and that whole, that experience, will depend on our the good people of Shanghai, who shall help comprise a whole that is greater than the sum of our individual parts: good drinks, good food, good ambiance.
Apothecary’s soft opening is April 1 (no, not a joke). For more information, please contact [email protected] 4/F, Sinan Mansions, 45 Sinan Lu near Chongqing Lu (思南路45弄4楼，近重庆路)