I very rarely find myself in Chinatown; which is odd, given its proximity to my office and my fondness for Asian cuisine. Upon reflection, I attribute the infrequency of my visits to three factors. First, the paucity of bars in the area means that Chinatown normally isn’t part of the “where should we have drinks tonight” conversation. It’s somewhere you go almost exclusively for lunch or dinner.
That brings me to my second issue. While some neighborhoods may suffer from a lack of viable eateries, the reverse is true in Chinatown – there are almost too many options. It’s a densely packed area with dozens upon dozens of restaurants, and unless I’m headed to a particular destination, the prospect of simply picking a place to eat is overwhelming.
Finally, my lingering memory of those few occasions when I have dined in Chinatown is of being squeezed into an absurdly tight space in an already crowded restaurant. The neighborhood’s popularity, combined with the small size of some of the restaurants, often means you’re standing outside while waiting for a table. And when you do get a table, you might find yourself squished into a corner near the utility closet (as once happened to a friend of mine). It can make for a chaotic dining experience.
Then you have Shōjō – which does everything differently.
A first glance alone reveals Shōjō to be distinct from its neighbors. Amid a throng of red and yellow signs advertising dumplings or “exotic” cocktails, its exterior is subtle and understated – a black and white sign against a gray wall, with a row of tall bamboo separating the entrance from the sidewalk. And as soon as you step in, the differences between Shōjō and every other place in Chinatown quickly become apparent.
Shōjō is spacious, refined, and serene. There’s a small, L-shaped bar and 10 or 12 tables, nicely spread out, each with chopsticks wrapped in thick black napkins at the place settings.
The look and feel is equal parts rustic and modern – which, as one of the managers told me, is very much by design. Gleaming wooden tables with handsome black chairs and a shiny gray concrete floor reflect modern-day craftsmanship, while aged-looking exposed brick, a bar made with reclaimed wood from the 1700s and 1800s, and Shinto bar stools recall a sense of tradition. High ceilings and hanging caged lights give the entire space something of an industrial feel.
Painted on the far wall is a mural depicting the journey of the restaurant’s namesake, Shōjō – a Japanese mythical figure, half-man and half-monkey, who scours the world in search of a never-ending river of sake. (I hope he finds it and makes a detailed map.)
It’s an upscale place that could be very serious in tone, but the atmosphere instead seems relaxed. Shōjō was even decorated for Halloween when I was there, cobwebs and spiders adorning light fixtures and walls, making things feel casual and playful. Plus, when the cornerstone of the décor is a monkey man looking for a river of sake, how uptight could a place like this be?
I sought out Shōjō on account of its reputation for well-made cocktails. Again, Chinatown doesn’t come to mind as an obvious destination for drinks, so the idea of a craft cocktail lounge in the neighborhood seemed pretty novel.
I visited on a recent Saturday with fellow barhoppers Kelly, Kat, and Tracy. The bar was full when we arrived at 7 p.m., but only a few of the tables were occupied and we were seated immediately.
We could tell we were in good hands as soon as we sat down. Our waiter, Justin, was one of the friendliest, most helpful servers I’ve had in ages. Whenever we ordered a drink, he inquired as to whether we’d had it before, apprised us of any unusual ingredients, and suggested modifications for us to consider.
Now I freely admit – despite my having heard good things about Shōjō’s cocktails, I was expecting scorpion bowls and Mai Tais, or at least very upscale tiki drinks. What I found instead was a small, well-conceived cocktail menu that put an Asian twist on classic drinks while offering a few unique creations. There’s also an extensive selection of sake (Shōjō himself would approve), including one brand that comes in a can.
I began the evening with an Aberdeen Swizzle – house citrus-infused gin and coconut crème, beautifully garnished with a basil leaf. It had the dryness you’d expect of gin, but the citrus contributed a natural sweetness; the coconut was subtle but gave the drink a certain smoothness, and the pleasant aroma of basil was evident in every sip.
Kat’s selection, the Chairman’s Painkiller, was the most visually striking, served in a funky-looking ceramic tiki cup. Made with Chairman’s spiced rum, coconut crème, and orange, it was a creamy concoction with a subdued tropical flair.
Stoddard’s may make the best Moscow Mule in town, but Shōjō puts its distinct stamp on the drink by swapping vodka for citrus-infused gin and using a house-made ginger beer. The resulting Gin Gin Mule, as Kelly discovered, is a worthy variation on a classic, with the citrus and a little simple syrup mellowing out what could have been a harsh combination of ginger beer and gin.
Tracy’s drink was probably the most elegant selection of the first round. The Lisboa is made with Oolong-infused gin, Lillet blanc, orange bitters, and grapefruit. At Justin’s suggestion, Tracy swapped out the gin for Oolong-infused vodka and seemed pretty happy with the result.
As we sipped our drinks, we began perusing the menu. Aside from only serving remarkably fresh, locally sourced food, the chefs clearly aren’t playing by any strict culinary rules. A word like “fusion,” while applicable, doesn’t do Shōjō justice; combining French and Italian techniques with modern Asian cuisine, the menu is constantly in flux, depending on the availability of local ingredients. The results again distinguish Shōjō from so many of its neighbors. How else would you explain their offering turkey meatloaf with miso gravy as one of that evening’s specials?
Turkey meatloaf? In Chinatown?
French fries are another item you might not expect to see on a Chinatown menu; and even if they were an option…why would you get them? But as we began ordering appetizers, Shōjō’s duck fat hand-cut fries stood out as an enticing, if offbeat, option. Served with a creamy dipping sauce, they were hard to resist.Next up was barbecue pork rib, topped with a crisp Asian slaw. The meat was tender and fell right off the bone.
Shrimp fritters were available on special, but they were going fast and Justin had to consult the chef before offering them to us. With a crunchy exterior and accompanied by a tangy chili sauce, I can see why they were in demand.
With that we moved on to dinner. Tempting as the turkey meatloaf was, I opted for a different special – braised rabbit served with handmade tagliatelle, mustard white wine sauce, and smoked bacon. I don’t have rabbit that often, so I don’t have much to compare my entrée to, but it was tasty and tender (and yeah, pretty much tasted like chicken). But the pasta stole the show. Made on site, these were the thickest, richest noodles I’ve ever had.
Also on special was a roasted half-chicken with smashed potatoes, smoked bacon, red wine sauce, and beech mushrooms. Tracy went for this and said the chicken pretty much tasted like rabbit.
Kelly got honey barbecue pork ravioli, another creative combination of disparate elements. The flavor of the meat reminded me of marinated pork right off the grill; wrapped in more of that house-made pasta, it was delicious.
Kat settled on steamed mussels in lemongrass broth, from the appetizer menu. In hindsight, I’m surprised Kelly didn’t get these, given her professed dislike for seafood and contradictory tendency to order it whenever we go out.
Needless to say, a second round of Shōjō’s excellent cocktails was in order.
I was most intrigued by the Reiko Greene, made with Hendricks gin, green chartreuse, lime, and – get this – cucumber ice. Justin called it a “two-part drink,” because its complexion gradually changes as the cucumber ice melts. That’s if you sip it slowly, which was a challenge given how good it was even as a one-part drink. Sure enough, the flavor and character evolved as the cucumber slowly permeated the cocktail.
Kelly got the Ding How cocktail, which is Shōjō’s take on a French 75. Made with Hendricks gin, lillet rose, bitters, simple syrup, and lemon juice, and finished with rose champagne, it was dry and effervescent with just a hint of sweetness.
We also got to see the Shōjō bartenders shift into improvisational mode when Tracy shifted into diva mode and demanded a special cocktail be made just for her. Undaunted, the bartender crafted Tracy a drink with champagne, ginger, and an orange peel. Simple and refreshing, it calmed Tracy down and made me look forward to coming back and sitting at the bar, trying whatever new cocktails are on the menu, or just telling the bartenders what I like and seeing what they come up with. Judging by what I’ve seen by Shōjō already, I’m sure the results will be impressive.
As we began wrapping things up, one of the managers, Brendan, came by to ask about our meals and to make sure Tracy didn’t have another “make me a drink” outburst. He told us more about his interesting restaurant, which has only been open since August but appears to be thriving. I sensed he and the staff had a lot of pride in Shōjō, and they should. As a one-of-a-kind bar in Chinatown, I hope it enjoys a bright future.
You know what bugs me most about my complete lack of knowledge of where to go in Chinatown? The fact that everyone I talk to knows “some little place” that’s a hidden gem. I always hear “Oooh, I know a place in Chinatown that makes the best dim sum,” or “I know a place there that makes the best Vietnamese sandwiches.”
Well now I can finally chime in – I know a place in Chinatown that makes the best drinks.
Shōjō not only finds a way to stands out in this busy neighborhood; it stands tall. If you’re looking for traditional Asian cuisine or colorful Polynesian cocktails, you won’t find them here. What you will find is an innovative approach that seamlessly combines elements of Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese cooking, and doesn’t stop there. Even characterizing the food as Asian seems limiting; the menu might be better described as a collection of thoughtful, creative dishes tied together by a distinct Asian thread.
But more important than the type of the cuisine is how wonderfully fresh it all is. Relying only on locally available ingredients forces the chefs to stay creative, and the results are delicious, beautifully presented, and anything but predictable.
That same sense of freshness and creativity influences the cocktail menu as well. Little things, like infusing their liquors and crafting their own ginger beer, mean Shōjō’s bartenders are working with highly customized ingredients. As a result, even the simplest drink here is unique.
The prices are totally reasonable. Our drinks were $10 each, which is standard for cocktails of that sort. Entrees ranged from $16 to $18, and the appetizers were between $6 and $8.
And as I mentioned, the service was outstanding. Justin was helpful and good-natured (he confessed to being the artistic force behind the Halloween decorations). Even though most of the tables were full by 8:45, we got the same level of attention as when we arrived at a much quieter hour. That, along with Shōjō’s peaceful ambience, made our evening in Chinatown casual and comfortable.
And much better sharing a corner with a utility closet.
Address: 9A Tyler Street, Boston