Friday, July 28, 2017

Sumiao Hunan Kitchen: An Impressive Beginning

"But in the West, Hunan cooking is often confused with Sichuan cooking. In China these two cuisines have very distinct characteristics. Whereas Sichuan is known for the hot and numbing sensation from dried chiles and Sichuan peppercorns, Hunan flavors are hot and sour from pickled chiles and pickled vegetables, made by letting brined fresh ingredients ferment naturally."
--Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees: Essential Techniques of Authentic Chinese Cooking by Kian Lam Kho

To begin, consider this fascinating bit of trivia concerning Hunan. In 1931, the Governor of the Hunan province banned the book Alice in Wonderland because of its talking animals. The Governor stated, "Animals should not use human language, and it is disastrous to put animals and human beings on the same level." I'm sure that ban would have applied to other children's books with talking animals too.

The mountainous province of Hunan is located in the southern central region of China, on the south bank of the Yangtze River. It is an agricultural treasure, producing about 40% of the total rice in China. Hunan cuisine, also called Xiang cuisine, is one of the Eight Great Traditions of Chinese cuisine and extends back at least to the 17th century. Hunan cuisine once was broken down into three primary styles, including Xiang River, Dongting Lake and Western Hunan. However, over time, Hunan cuisine has evolved, the three styles merging together and becoming a single contemporary Hunan style.

Hunan cuisine is often said to be hot and spicy, with a major use of many different types of chiles. During their winters, it is thought that chiles are beneficial to their health. There is a common saying: "Sichuan people don't fear hot food, Hunan people don't fear any degree of spiciness at all, and Guizhou people fear to eat food that isn't spicy." Chairman Mao Zedong, who was from Hunan, once said, "You can't be a revolutionary if you don't eat chilies."

However, Hunan cuisine is about far more than just spicy heat. First, there is a strong sour element, often from vinegar, in many of their spicy dishes. Second, the cuisine often can be very healthy, with seasonal ingredients, including fresh vegetables, herbs and seafood. Fermentation is also a significant element in their cuisine, sometimes helping to balance out any spicy heat. The important thing to know is that Hunan cuisine is far more diverse than just being spicy.

"Hunan, along with many other southern regions of China, is known for producing excellent cured bacon and ham, two prized ingredients that also often characterize Hunan flavor."
--Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees: Essential Techniques of Authentic Chinese Cooking by Kian Lam Kho

During the 1970s, a number of Chinese chefs, skilled in Hunan cuisine, came to the U.S., though they often adapted their recipes for American tastes. For example, one of the most famous dishes from that period is General Tso's Chicken, which is now a staple dish in many Chinese restaurants. You've probably tasted this dish before, and some of your may enjoy it. It most often consists of heavily battered and fried chicken pieces covered by a thick, sweet sauce. That common recipe though was specifically designed to appeal to an American palate.

Though there is some dispute as to its origin, one of the most popular stories states that the dish was created by Chef Peng Chang-Kuei, a Hunanese chef who worked as the presidential palace chef of the Nationalist Government in Taiwan. In 1953, U.S. Admiral Arthur W. Radford visited Taiwan, meeting with President Chiang Kai-Shek. Chef Peng decided to create some new dishes for an official banquet, creating General Tso's Chicken, which was named after a famous Qing dynasty general, Zuo Zongtang.

His version had a light batter on the chicken and was tart, garlicky and spicy though American versions would later become much sweeter dishes. Around 1971, a couple Chinese chefs came to New York and created their own versions of this dish, making it sweeter to appeal more to Americans. A year later, Chef Peng came to New York but his version, even though it was the original, was considered an inferior copy. So, the sweeter version, with a thicker batter, became the norm, beloved by many Americans.

Locally, you'll find a few Chinese restaurants offering some Hunanese dishes, but a new restaurant concentrating on Hunan cuisine opens today in Kendall Square in Cambridge, offering many traditional dishes, as well as some of their own innovative takes. Sumiao Hunan Kitchen is the creation of Sumiao Chen, a pharmacologist at Novartis as well as a restaurateur who was previously involved in opening the Feng-Shui restaurant chain. Sumiao, which is a Chinese word meaning “sketch", was born in Xiangtan, a city in Hunan which was also the birthplace of Mao Zedong, and she received culinary training at Le Cordon Bleu.

During this week, I visited the restaurant, as a media guest, during their soft opening as well as at last night's opening party. As such, I'm not going to provide a complete restaurant review but rather provide some of my initial impressions of the restaurant. Please note that as the restaurant has only officially opened today, you can probably expect some changes during the near future as they fine tune everything.

I had the opportunity to speak with Sumiao Chen, who I found to be personable and energetic, and learned that this restaurant is more than just an investment for her. There is clearly much passion within her, and she sees Sumiao Hunan as reflective of her cultural experiences over the past 25 years. It also is indicative of her love for her father, as the restaurant is decorated with some of his artwork. This is definitely a very personal endeavor for Sumiao. When I asked her about her favorite items on the menu, her excitement level elevated as she pointed out some of those dishes, such as the Mala Duck and Red-Braised Pork.

During the Opening Night party, there was a live band and Sumiao showed her joie de vivre as she danced with a number of staff and friends to the music.

It didn't end there as Sumiao even sang, in Chinese, with the band! When is the last time you saw a restaurant owner singing in their own restaurant?

The restaurant was designed to include multiple dining experiences, including: "...more traditional dining room seating in front of a fireplace, a bar that overlooks an expansive action kitchen, a polished lounge area that boasts a large communal table abstractly shaped in the form of an “S” and additional low-top options for a more intimate experience." It presents a casual and fun ambiance,  with lots of color, and large windows facing out into Kendall Square.

As I mentioned, the restaurant is decorated with several pieces of art. "The space is outfitted with four major artworks that celebrate the juxtaposition between history and modern day as well as Chen’s love and appreciation of art that has been nurtured since infancy. Chen – the daughter of one of China’s most celebrated painters and calligraphers, Peihua Chen – has thoughtfully selected pieces to exhibit the beauty and sophistication of the Hunanese culture. Among the works is a magnificently vibrant painting of a lotus flower by Peihua Chen, the flower of the Hunan province that represents rebirth, purity and self-awareness. In full circle just as her father gifted her the translated name of “Sketch” at birth, this painting was his final gift to his daughter before his passing on his only visit to the United States in 2000."

The drinks program at Sumaio has been designed by beverage consultant Richard Echeverria, and will be run by Paul Lamprey. Their drinks list includes 5 different Baijiu, a Chinese spirit which is actually the most popular spirit in the world. Baijiu has been produced in the Hunan region for a very long time though it has only been more recently that they have been making Baijiu which has become noteworthy. They also offer four different Baijiu cocktails, which are generally made with Hong Kong Baijiu, and you will rarely find that many Baijiu cocktails at any other local restaurant.

For more information on Baijiu, including reviews of the 5 Baijiu carried by Sumiao, please check out my prior post, which has links to all of my other Baijiu posts. And with World Baijiu Day coming up on August 9, Sumiao Hunan would be a great place to celebrate this holiday and learn more about this fascinating Chinese spirit.

The Drinks menu also has five Tiki Cocktails as well as five other Signature Cocktails (generally priced $12-$14). There are even four Mocktails, non-alcoholic drinks, which is great for the who don't want to imbibe but want something different to sip. The Wine list has about 13 options by the glass ($9-$10) with another 11 available just by the bottle. There is some good diversity on the list, better than many other Asian restaurants. The Sake list is short and generally unexciting, except they do carry a couple of Sakes from the local Dovetail Sake. I would like to see them add some more interesting Sakes to their list.

I've enjoyed all four of their Baijiu cocktails, noting that all of them had the prominent fruity and herbal flavors of Hong Kong Baijiu. The Schrodinger's Coupe ($14) is made with Baijiu, curaçao, grapefruit, lime and plum bitters. It's Baijiu taste was accompanied by some sour fruit flavors with a hint of grapefruit. It wasn't overly sweet and was a refreshing summer drink.

The Perpetual Motion ($14) is made with Baijiu, blood orange, lime, elderflower liqueur, and mint. It had more red fruit flavors, with enhanced aromatics and a touch of citrus. This cocktail was also refreshing, wasn't overly sweet, and was well balanced.

The Ice Cold Fusion ($14) is made with Baijiu, Cognac, triple sec and lemon. This might have been my favorite of their Baijiu cocktails, offering a bit more of a sour taste, enhanced by the flavors of the Cognac.

The Pyroclastic Punch ($14) is made with Baijiu, fruitlab hibiscus liqueur, passionfruit cordial and lemon. It was probably the sweetest of the four cocktails, though not overly so. It had deep berry flavors with nice aromatics.

The Maitai-Hunan Style ($12) is made with Bacardi White, Chairman's Reserve Spiced Rum, Curacao, Orgeat, mixed juices, and a dark rum float. It had a nice blend of tropical fruit flavors, was only mildly sweet, and the spice notes enhanced the taste. Another winning cocktail.

The Asian Atom ($12) is made with Bacardi white rum, Myers original dark rum, Apricot brandy, Mai Tai mix, mixed juices, and 151 float. It was a bit sweeter than the Mai Tai though it had a pleasant taste, especially a tropical accent.

The Sumiao Citrus ($6) is one of the Mocktails, made with white grapefruit juice, lemon, simple syrup, blood orange puree, and orange garnish. This was an interesting concoction, not overly sweet, and was quite refreshing. If you aren't drinking something alcoholic with your meal, then this would be a good option.

Much research and experimentation went into the development of their menu, including testing over 300 dishes. Some of the eliminated dishes required ingredients that weren't available locally while others weren't considered healthy enough for their concept. The chefs who will execute these dishes are Changchun Ji and Xinke Tan, and they have worked at restaurants including Nobu, Masa, Hakkasan and Hunan Manor.

Chef Changchun Ji came to the United States in the early 2000s when he accepted an offer to work as a chef at Masa in New York City. Since then, Chef Ji has since worked at distinguished restaurants such as Nobu Fifty Seven, Hakkasan in New York City and in Beverly Hills, Din Tai Fung, and Chengdu Impression before arriving in Cambridge to helm the kitchen at Sumiao Hunan Kitchen.

Chef Xinke Tan began his culinary career in 2000, working as a kitchen manager for Kaixuanmen Restaurant in Zhijiang, Hunan, China for six years. Moving to Munich for work in 2007, Chef Tan later returned to China, relocating to Xiangtan, Hunan, Sumiao’s hometown, in 2011 where he worked as executive chef at Jinyuan No. 1. An expert in Hunan cuisine and Chinese flavor profiles, Chef Tan arrived in the United States in 2012, working at a number of Hunan restaurants around America such as Hunan Taste in Baltimore, Hunan Manor in New York City as well as Dong Ting Chun Hunan Restaurant and King Fu Master in Los Angeles. Now back on the East Coast at Sumiao Hunan Kitchen, Chef Tan brings his expertise in Hunan cuisine to Kendall Square.

The base of Sumiao's Hunan's menu is contemporary Hunan style, with a few dishes from other Chinese culinary traditions. Their lunch and dinner menus will essentially remain unchanged while their weekend menu, which has more authentic Hunan dishes, and the Chef's special menu will change frequently, based on seasonally and the the availability of ingredients.

The initial dinner menu includes Soups (4 choices, $7-$8) and Appetizers (6 choices, $7-$12), from Sumiao Hot & Soup Soup to Garlic Calamari. The menu is then split between Vegetable and Meat & Fish, with dishes prepared in four different ways, including Hunan Wok, Steamed, Pan-Seared, and Stir-Fried (Vegetables $12-$18, Meat & Fish $14-$45). Try Hunan Wok Mountain Yams, Pan-Seared Cucumber with Shisho, or Stir Fried Skinny Broccoli. Or opt for Hunan Red-Braised Pork, Steamed Lava Fish, or Stir-Fried Beef on Fire. There is also a section for Grains, including Pancake, Noodle, Rice and Bao, with three options for each category, ranging from $10-$20. Check out the Hunan Roti Canai, Scallion Cold Noodles, Sanxiang Fried Rice or Jimmy's Crab Bao.

The Weekend menu is intended to present more authentic Hunanese dishes, and it will change from time to time. Currently, the menu has 6 additional options ($8-$28), such as Sea Jelly with Daikon Radish, House-Made Pickled Beans with Pork, House-Made La Rou with Mushrooms, and Pan-Seared Whole Wheat Dough.

The menu is certainly diverse, and many of the dishes will seem familiar to people, though you might find some dishes prepared differently than you are used to finding elsewhere. Prices seem reasonable based on the quality and quantity of the dishes. And everything I tasted was delicious.

The Spicy Crunchy Cucumber ($8), topped by a house sesame scallion sauce, wasn't overly spicy, though the heat does build up in your mouth, and had a nice crunch to it. It also seemed to work as a decent palate cleanser while enjoying some of the other dishes.

The Rustic Scallion Pancake ($12) was light and flaky, not oily, with a clean and compelling taste.

One of the highlights for me was the Mala Duck ($9), with an aged mala soy rub. The duck was tender and moist, with crisp skin, mild spice notes and lots of savory flavor. Beneath all the deletable slices of duck was a small pile of additional duck pieces, though there were some bones amidst those pieces.

The West Lake Beef Chowder ($8), made with parsley and egg whites, seems to be more of a soup than a chowder, reminding me in some ways of an egg drop soup with tender pieces of meat within it. The broth was savory and tasty, and the bowl is quite large, big enough for two people at least.

The Sumiao Fried Rice ($12), with eggs and soy sauce, is a relatively simple dish but very well done, tasting fresh and savory.

Jimmy's Crab Bao ($9), with pork and an aged vinegar chili dipping sauce, remind me of soup dumplings as they have a juicy interior so you must carefully bite into them so you don't lose all that delectable broth. These bao have a pleasing texture and each bite encompasses a tasty and complex blend of flavors. And the dipping sauce is an excellent enhancement to the bao.

The Sumiao Gyoza ($6) are home-made pork gyoza,  accompanied by a five spices dipping sauce. Like the bao, these gyoza have a nice texture, with a slight crunch due to the frying, and are filled with a light, meaty mix.

From the weekend menu, the Sumiao Shang Gan ($8) consists of rectangular pieces of bean curd with pork belly, green cayenne pepper, and garlic leaves, though initially I thought the greens were green beans. Though I'm not a big tofu fan, I enjoyed this dish, each tender piece of bean curd having soaked up the spicy and savory flavors of the dish. This is a spicy hot dish, the type of Hunan cuisine you hear about.

Also from the weekend menu, the Grandma's Pork ($15) has plenty of pork belly, with green cayenne pepper and garlic leaves. It was probably the spiciest of all the dishes I enjoyed, and was one of my favorites. The tender pork belly is salty and flavorful, enhanced by the heat of the pepper and the crunch of the garlic leaves. This is a fine example of Hunan cuisine.

I had to try their Stir-Fried General Tso Chicken ($16), with dried chili pepper, to see how it compared to the myriad versions available at so many Asian restaurants. Sumiao's version is based on the original recipe of Chef Peng though they have also made some modifications, adding in some Hunan elements, and thus creating their own unique version. I was thoroughly impressed with this dish, and it is probably the best version I've ever tasted. The chicken had a light, crunchy batter and the sauce was more savory, with mild spice and plenty of complexity. Highly recommended.

Some of the appetizers on their Opening Party night included Dessert Fish (and that is savory, not sweet), Fried Calamari and Lotus Meat Balls. Those scrumptious meatballs were made from pork, lotus root, egg, flour, corn starch, soda powder and black pepper. They had a great crunchy coating and a moist and savory taste within.

If you have room, they also have a small dessert menu, with about eight options ($8-$12), including Exotic Bomba, Green Tea Tiramisu, Chocolate Pistachio Souffle and Creme Brûlée.

Overall, this is an impressive beginning for Sumiao Hunan Kitchen and expect it will become a popular restaurant in Kendall Square. I will certainly return, to try more of the menu, and see how the restaurant develops over time. I highly recommend you check out the restaurant and experience for yourself their Hunanese cuisine, accompanied by a fine Baijiu cocktail. I wish Sumaio Chen and her whole team the best of luck in this endeavor.

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