Cuchi Cuchi

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I don’t know how many hours I spent trying to find the words to describe Cuchi Cuchi before finally surrendering to the reality that the Central Square bar simply defies categorization. Calling it a cocktail bar would give short shrift to its eclectic dinner menu. Referring to it as a tapas bar is a little off the mark, too, because despite the preponderance of small-plate offerings, “tapas” is Spanish, and Cuchi Cuchi’s menu draws inspiration from around the globe. You could call it an ode to the Roaring Twenties, on account of the vintage drink list and servers clad in flapper dresses; but where exactly do the 19th-century fixtures, framed portraits of mid-20th-century actresses, and motion-detecting LED table fit into that description? “We wanted something completely different,” co-owner Fernanda da Silva explains in a matter-of-fact tone when reflecting on the inspiration for Cuchi Cuchi, which will celebrate its 14th anniversary this summer. Bartender Laura Antunes somehow manages to unite the restaurant’s many disparate elements: “We appreciate beauty,” she says simply. “Inside and out.”

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Beauty can be found in abundance at Cuchi Cuchi, and it appears in countless forms. An angular 40-foot bar is punctuated by brass lamps with reverse-painted glass lampshades that mimic an early-20th century style known as “blown out” or “puffy.” Behind the bar are three gorgeous stained-glass windows from the 1890s that once resided in a Chicago restaurant.

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An original Kubuki kimono adorns a wall above the dining area, next to a trio of autographed pictures of the incomparable Dita Von Teese.

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Hovering above the restaurant like a high priestess of fashion is a mannequin affectionately known as Conchita, who models selections from Cuchi Cuchi’s extensive wardrobe of tantalizing outfits and jewelry.

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And below Conchita is the “Chico Chica Boom” dining table, which adds a little modern-day pizzazz to the menagerie of elegant antiquities. It’s an interactive LED table that senses motion, reacting when you place a drink on its glass surface.

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As described on Cuchi Cuchi’s website, the décor seeks to capture the essence of Old World beauty and the glamour of the early Hollywood era. It’s a loosely defined theme that stretches across decades and borrows from multiple eras of style. The idea for it originated in the earliest days of Cuchi Cuchi’s history.

“When we talked about opening a restaurant,” Fernanda says, “the first thing we did was go shopping.” She and co-owners Tamara Bourso and Barbara Dollar (the latter of whom has since moved on to other endeavors) perused antique shops and worked with antique dealers to procure many of the items that conspire to give Cuchi Cuchi its timeless radiance.

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Fernanda’s enthusiasm for early Hollywood style is clearly evident. “The ladies dresses were so elegant,” she exclaims as she waxes nostalgic about an era defined by fashionable evening wear – fur coats, boas, glittering jewelry, snazzy suits. “Nobody dresses like that anymore,” she says a little wistfully.

Well…that’s not entirely accurate.

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Accentuating the décor, most of Cuchi’s staff don extravagant costumes that resurrect the days of flapper dresses, bob haircuts, colorful feathers, and flowing hats. Laura – herself a Cuchi Cuchi regular before becoming an employee – relishes the opportunity to get dressed up for work, and so do some of the customers. Groups of guests occasionally show up in Jazz Age garb, with Halloween and New Year’s Eve drawing the most colorful crowds.

Between the dazzling outfits and the charming antique fixtures, Cuchi Cuchi summons all the glitz and mystique of a vintage nightclub – think candlelight and jazz, conversation and laughter, a plume of bluish smoke drifting from the tip of a long cigarette holder balanced between the gloved fingers of some femme fatale. It’s a fervent, heartfelt paean to an era of glamour, sophistication, and sensuality.

And they’ve got the drinks to match.

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Cuchi Cuchi’s drink list is expansive and diverse, but a section devoted to “Vintage Cocktails” fits the mood perfectly. The Singapore Sling is a classic that dates back to 1915. Made with gin, Cherry Heering, Benedictine, Cointreau, orange and pineapple juice, and soda water, this old-school cocktail is vibrant, potent, and sweet.

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The Pegu Club Cocktail has its roots in the 1920s, when it was the signature drink of the eponymous British gentlemen’s club in Burma. Combining gin, orange curacao, lime juice, and Angostura and orange bitters, it’ll cool you off on a sweltering summer night.

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The amusingly named Satan’s Whiskers is a 1930s-era cocktail that blends gin, sweet and dry vermouth, orange curacao, orange bitters, and orange juice.

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The refreshing Caipirinha is the national drink of Brazil, and Cuchi Cuchi renders it simply and faithfully with cachaça, fresh lime juice, and sugar.

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The Mai Tai is a potent variation of the tiki classic, combining light and dark rum, orange curacao, amaretto, pineapple, and lime juice.

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Just as Cuchi Cuchi’s décor traverses styles and genres, their food menu casually hops continents. Fernanda explains that they avoided serving tapas because co-owner Tamara also runs the Spanish restaurant Dali, in Somerville, and they didn’t want to foster competition. But they did want dishes that fell somewhere in between appetizers and entrées in terms of portion size. The concept promotes a communal dining experience, with parties ordering a variety of dishes and sharing them.

And while it might not strictly be tapas, some of the dishes do hail from Spain, like the Sizzling Garlic Shrimp, served in piping-hot cast-iron skillet.

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Beneath the crispy exterior of the Fried Artichoke Hearts is a mix of gorgonzola, pistachios, and basil. This Italian dish is served with lemon, wine, and black olive sauce.

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You can’t smoke the Cuban Cigar, but this recipe of beef short ribs wrapped in dough with black bean salsa and plantains is satisfying anyway.

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Gobi-Manchurian is an Indo-Chinese dish of crispy cauliflower fritters in a tangy, spicy sauce.

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France makes several appearances on the menu, first with the Gratin Dauphinois – a rich, decadent bowl of baked, thin-sliced potatoes, onions, cheese, and cream. And the classic Duck a l’Orange is prepared in crepe form, with succulent roasted duck, citrus, and fennel vinaigrette.

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There’s even a nod or two to Russia, as with the Chicken Kiev.

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While the Vintage Drinks tend to coincide nicely with Cuchi Cuchi’s panoply of historical items and themes, they’re matched by “Cuchi Drinks,” a selection of original concoctions and the bar’s take on other modern libations. I might not have noticed how many of them are made with muddled fruit and herbs had Fernanda not confidently told me that her bar was the first in the Boston area to offer a menu of muddled drinks.

That might sound like a bold claim, but it’s a credible one if you consider the state of cocktail culture 14 years ago. When Cuchi Cuchi opened its doors back in 2001, cosmos and appletinis were all the rage; I think mojitos were just becoming popular. The trend of crafting original drinks with fresh ingredients – and revisiting classic recipes, for that matter – was only gradually coming into vogue.

As with any good contemporary cocktail bar, Cuchi Cuchi’s drinks feature quality spirits, fresh fruit, and plenty of clever twists. The cocktail offerings change regularly, and all of the bartenders contribute ideas and recipes.

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“They take a long time to make,” Fernanda says of the cocktails’ composition, “but that’s because there’s a lot of love in these drinks.” Laura concurs: “It can be laborious, but we take a lot of pride in the drinks we make.”

The Orient Express is made with muddled kiwi, orange, lemongrass, cranberry juice, citrus vodka, and lychee liqueur, with a champagne float. Smooth, fresh, and fruity, the kiwi seeds add a cool visual effect at the bottom of the glass.

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The Blood Orange Side Car is a bold, fruity update of the classic, adding blood orange puree to a mix of cognac, Cointreau, and lemon juice.

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Ordering “You Give Me Fever” prompted the waitress to quietly sing a few bars from the sultry standard as she delivered this fiery mix of muddled jalapeno, pineapple and lime juice, fresh mint, tequila, and Maraschino liquor.

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Once Upon a Time in Mexico, a recent addition to Cuchi Cuchi’s menu, features muddled mint and jalapeño, Agavales Blanco tequila, elderflower liqueur, and passion fruit. The elderflower liqueur is St. Elder, made in Somerville. I mention that not only to give Cuchi Cuchi props for using a local product but because I think this is the first time I’ve encountered an elderflower liqueur other than St. Germain. Anyway, I digress.

It’s a sweet, balanced drink with a soft texture, floral notes, and a little kick at the end from the jalapeño. With layers of color and one of the most charming garnishes I’ve ever seen – a slice of lime cradling a cluster of pomegranate seeds – it was almost too pretty to drink. Almost.

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“Sexy, right?” Fernanda remarks. “That’s what Cuchi Cuchi’s about – naughty, sexy, fun.”

I’m glad someone can describe this place so succinctly.

Last Call

I don’t think Cuchi Cuchi could have chosen a more fitting name for itself. Inspired by the signature catchphrase of legendary Spanish entertainer Charo, the restaurant’s moniker demands to be uttered with flair and a sense of playfulness. It encourages conversation – “Why did they call it that? And what does it mean, anyway?” – and encourages guests to not take things too seriously. And that’s important, because for all of Cuchi Cuchi’s artistry and panache, its longevity is buoyed by the quality of its food and drink. If the atmosphere inspires you to dust off an old fedora or don a vintage cocktail dress, so be it. But you can come as you are.

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At the same time, it’s easy to get swept up in the staff’s enthusiasm. Listening to Fernanda and Laura talk about their shared passion for beauty, expression, and style somehow makes Cuchi Cuchi come alive. It becomes apparent, if there were any doubt, that the décor is not the product of calculated interior design but the living reflection of the collective imagination of a close-knit ensemble.

“It takes a certain personality to work here,” Fernanda acknowledges.

Of that, I have no doubt.

Address: 795 Main Street, Cambridge

Website:http://www.cuchicuchi.cc/

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