Lorri and I had our eyes on this fairly new restaurant/bar for a while now, for several reasons:

  • There’s a superb feedback loop of decadence between top notch cocktails and spicy authentic Asian food, where the cold sweet alcohol fuels the desire for rich fiery food. No one nails this better than the Baldwin Bar/Sichuan Gardens in Woburn, but Sumaio (with its own chili-powered Hunan cuisine) sounded like a worthy contender in this space
  • Baiju! Supposedly the #1 liquor in the world due to its massive popularity in China, Baiju is something we haven’t had much of, so the prospect of a bar that knew its way around this “Chinese vodka” (probably a terrible description) was intriguing.
  • The Secret Cocktail Club : Sumaio has a secret invitation only club for cocktail enthusiasts which sounds fabulous in concept. Details are appropriately hazy but it sounds like our kind of challenge (I supply the requisite cocktail nerdom, Lorri supplies the mix of charm / forwardness necessary to break into these kinds of circles).

Since I was picking up Lorri from Logan Airport we took the opportunity to stop off in Kendall Square (which has plenty of great drinking options but is tough on parking so we don’t get there as often as we’d like) for an early dinner and lucked out on a parking space right out front.

Even better, we got two spots right at the bar. For a true cocktail experience, we’ve found out that you HAVE to be at the bar. There’s no substitute for getting to talk shop with the bartender (assuming that he/she isn’t getting slammed with orders at the time, which is why we love to go during lunch or early in the dinner shift) and getting their recommendations for off menu drinks or even completely improvised drinks made custom to your palate (the so-called “bartender’s choice”). Being at the bar also gives you an invaluable perspective of the bartender’s technique and choice of liquors and ingredients. Even the most motivated and  knowledgeable of wait staff cannot replace the connection you can have with the right bartender at the right time at the right place.

We didn’t get Vinicius Stein (Sumaio’s beverage director) but our bartender Johnny was a delight – very enthusiastic, attentive and knowledgeable – we basically ordered all of the small bites he recommended and they were stellar examples of spicy Hunan cuisine which is criminally under-represented in Boston.

I went immediately for Sumaio’s Sidecar, which differs from a traditional sidecar in that it uses “lemon reduction” instead of lemon juice and the addition of a generous baiju rinse (reminiscent of the absinthe rinse on a Corpse Reviver #2).

WTF is Baiju, anyway? Baiju is typically made from sorghum as opposed to more common grains such as corn (bourbon), barley (beer, single or blended malts like Scotch), rye (rye whiskey) or fruits (cognac, brandy, pisco, calvados, applejack). However baiju CAN also be made from additional grains such as rice, wheat, millet, etc.. which is probably why it’s sometimes called “Chinese vodka” to beginners even though baiju is much closer to whiskey in terms of proof and its complexity.  K, end of Baiju lesson.

SUMAIO’S SIDECAR was a very cool spin on a traditional sidecar. The floral flavor and heady aroma of baiju smartly accented the cognac base in an 100% original way. The “lemon reduction” is probably as close to a lemon cordial or a lemon oleo saccharum (but with lemon juice in addition to the oils from the lemon zest), which I’m going to guess does three things: gives a thicker mouthfeel, gives strong lemon flavor with a longer shelf life than fresh lemon juice and reduces the need for a separate simple syrup. The lemon reduction was the reason I found Sumaio’s Sidecar a little more syrupy than I like (and a little lacking in the zing of fresh lemon juice) … but then again, the traditional Sidecar leans in that direction anyway so if you like Sidecars or Cable Cars this version is a must try!

SPICE ME UP was right down Lorri’s lane : Mezcal, spicy, with citrus and Aperol.  It was prepared with muddled lime & jalapeño and should have been a slam dunk for her, but the orange juice and lime reduction (there are reductions all over the menu) probably pulled it too far into the “fruity” and “syrupy sweet” arenas to be completely successful. Still, great to see another quality mezcal cocktail, especially one that uses Peloton de Muerte instead of the omnipresent Vida (which is flexible and excellent in cocktails but sometimes you just want something drier like Peloton or smokier like Sombra).

ORANGE RANT: Orange juice is notoriously difficult to work with – there’s huge variances in even freshly squeezed juice, you get depressingly little juice from each orange, the juice degrades within hours and it doesn’t provide enough bright acidity to counterbalance the sugar content. I find that it’s most successful in cocktails for people who just want fun tropical cocktails, not expertly balanced drinks. Even though I initially liked and sought out the Ward 8 (Boston’s only real cocktail of note and one that has a stiff dose of orange juice in it), I quickly realized that there are hundreds of better drinks out there .. and yes I’ve had David Wondrich’s and Will Thompson’s re-imagined Ward 8 and made Chad Arnholdt’s variation and they’re valiant and worthy drinks but still not something I’d gravitate towards first.   END ORANGE RANT

Next up I had the PERPETUAL MOTION, featuring baiju as the base and blood orange puree, mint, lime and elderflower. It was an education on what can be done with full-on baiju cocktails and not like anything I’d had before.  It had a strong tiki leaning (appropriate given the history of tiki in Asian restaurants) but I should have known that the elderflower was going to put me off a bit. The herbal unctuousness of elderflower / St. Germain is something I’m overly sensitive to and it tends to overpower whatever else is in the glass (and it sure didn’t help when I heard it described as “the ketchup of cocktails!).

Sumaio Hunan Kitchen also features a spiced rum Mai Tai (again, the Asian + Tiki connection), a Paper Plane (again with lemon reduction) a “Fish Bowl” (a VERY tropical shared cocktail in the vein of a Scorpion Bowl) and the awesomely named Pyroclastic Punch (which is probably too fruity for me and Lorri with its hibiscus AND passion fruit but a legit match for the food).

We’ll definitely come back and do a deeper dive again, preferably with some off menu drinks to get a less fruity, more baiju forward creation … and to get more of the food, which is absolutely killer with dozens of dim sum/small bites/street food options.

And of course, we totally forgot to ask about the secret cocktail club – maybe next time we’ll hear THE GONG.

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