Sumiao Hunan Kitchen stands out in Cambridge’s Kendall Square for a few reasons. There’s the striking look of the nine-month-old restaurant – wide open and spacious, with bold colors and a gorgeous bar surrounded by blue chairs.
There’s its extensive menu of authentic Hunan cuisine, featuring small plates such as spicy nom numb wings and delicious avocado meatballs.
But what makes Sumiao truly unique is its baijiu-driven bar program.
What is Baijiu?
Unfamiliar with baijiu? You’re not alone. Although this potent grain spirit has been consumed in China for centuries, it remains largely unknown in the United States. Sumiao appears to be one of the only (if not the only) establishments in Massachusetts serving it.
Baijiu is a clear spirit commonly distilled from sorghum but may also be made from other grains, such as rice, barley, and wheat. At Sumiao I was served a sample of it in an elegant but thimble-sized cup, though that’s all I needed. Baijiu can be bottled at anywhere from 40 to 120 proof, so it’s not a bad idea to take it easy.
And it’s definitely an acquired taste – the flavor is funky, earthy, and savory, with notes of unfamiliar fruits. I’d be hard-pressed to be more descriptive, since it’s unlike anything I’ve tasted before.
Unsurprisingly, cocktails make the task of acquiring a taste for baijiu a little easier. Sumiao uses baijiu to great effect in original cocktail as well as clever interpretations of the classics.
The Perpetual Motion is something of a signature drink, made with Hong Kong baijiu, blood orange puree, muddled mint and lime, and elderflower liqueur. The distinctive flavor of baijiu stands out, but it’s tempered by the citrus and the herbal notes of the mint and elderflower.
Sumiao’s rendering of a Sidecar combines baijiu with cognac, Cointreau, and a lemon reduction. It’s a spirit-forward drink, and I was expecting a big blast of baijiu. But it’s a sippable, surprisingly smooth cocktail, and one that helped me get better acclimated to the fiery spirit.
If your palate isn’t quite ready for baijiu, the rest of Sumiao’s drink list is familiar and approachable. The Mai Tai – Hunan Style is made with white rum, Chairman’s Reserve spiced rum, a lime reduction, and mixed juice, topped with a dark rum float and served in a striking tiki glass.
It’s sweet and refreshing, and a smart choice for this steamy weather we’re having.
Address: 270 Third Street, Cambridge
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