In certain Boston food-nerd circles, there’s a popular parlor game: What Cuisines Is Our Scene Still Missing? “Georgian cuisine,” one friend likes to muse (meaning Eastern European). “High-end Korean,” I often chime in. Until recently, you could have said, “Hunanese fare,” despite the few token dishes served at some Sichuan restaurants—Sichuan and Hunan are culinarily close. That gap recently closed with the advent of Kendall Square’s new Sumiao Hunan Kitchen. The space has the high ceilings, industrial sparseness and bright colors common to the nearby restaurants attracted in recent years by cheap rents and liquor licenses—but it also has some uncommonly beautiful paintings. There’s a private room in the back that seems built to host PowerPoint presentations. The bar features bottles of baiju ($118-$288), the ferocious Chinese spirit. But given the vaguely corporate ambiance, it’s easy to wonder how traditional the food will be.
Chef Xinke Tan and De Wu at times appear to be pulled in two directions. There’s something elemental and impeccably traditional in appetizers like spicy crunchy cucumber ($8) and its solidly fiery dressing of sesame and chili oils as well as the generous plate of mala duck ($9), cold slices with more of the mild capsicum fire common to many Hunanese dishes, but none of the Sichuan peppercorn its name would suggest. Avocado meatballs ($9) have a pleasantly crunchy exterior and a mild, finely textured, nicely salty meat center reminiscent of ground chicken (actually pork, egg and tofu), plus a squiggle of slightly chili-tinged mayo on top, though no avocado flavor is discernible. Might you expect a plate of stir-fried cabbage like Shaoshan cabbage ($15) to be delectable? If not, you might be surprised at the lovely interplay of garlic and vinegar in this dish, its vivid tang being another hallmark of the cuisine.
Sumiao gyoza ($10) is another simple, exquisitely executed dish, fine-grained pork filling wrappers well-browned and well-crisped by pan-frying, served with a soy sauce dip. But handmade soup bao ($12) break two promises. They look machine made, nothing like the gorgeous, clearly handmade version on the restaurant’s Instagram feed, and they hide barely any juicy melted aspic. A plate of scallion steamed twisty rolls ($12) is far lovelier: mild, tenderly doughy and substantial. Noodle dishes feature some ravishing flavors, like the rich, fatty goodness of red-braised beef shank atop the beef noodle soup ($12), chili-oil heat and salty umami of fermented black beans. But the rice noodles are so overdone as to disintegrate into globby pieces in the bowl, a grave kitchen error that robs us of the pleasures of slurping. Beef and egg noodles ($12) likewise offer virtuous contrast in textures and flavors, with more good beef slices, a hard-boiled egg, fierce little lightly pickled fresh peppers and whole skin-on peanuts; but again, the rice noodles underneath are also disastrously overcooked.
Entrees take a decided upswing, beginning with red-braised pork ($25), a quintessential Hunan dish in which each bite of fatty, chewy, chunky belly reveals alternating notes of blazing red pepper, garlic and darkly rich soy sauce. Hometown chicken wok ($16) swings lighter, all brightness in ginger, scallions and garlic. Lava fish ($24) skillfully cooks up filets of swai, a popular freshwater catfish from Southeast Asia, in a salty-tangy black bean soy sauce, though the fish is so mild as to be mistakable for farmed tilapia. Beef on fire ($18) delivers the advertised flame-throwing goods with double barrels of red chilies and banana peppers. And yes, we tried General Tso’s chicken ($16), the hero of a thousand bastardized American-Chinese restaurant meals, though Sumiao claims its version is closer to the ’60s-vintage, Hunan-inspired, Taiwanese banquet dish. It is slightly less syrupy-sweet than many American versions, though the batter-fried coating is disappointingly, familiarly thick.
We did not sample the dessert menu’s variety of very Western chocolate-based concoctions ($10-$13), though the purple yam buns ($10) we ordered earlier, with their creamy-sweet filling of white taro, would have served admirably for this course. The bar has a list of specialty cocktails—some of them baiju-based (most $14), plus some modernized Tiki cocktails ($12)—which offer some pretty, not-very-boozy sipping, though all lean on the sweet side. The beer list (six drafts, $7-$10; four packaged, $6.50-$14) favors crafty local brewers, with a couple of food-friendly, light-bodied adjunct pilsners from Asia tossed in. The list of 25 wines ($36-$68) is serviceably modest, ditto the seven sake options ($17-$55 per bottle).
Service runs from the affable and polished to the well-meaning but rougher-edged, dosing one customer with errant sauce during bussing. More concerning is how kitchen pacing can be off-kilter to the point of distraction: Trundling out too many courses at once means that hot entrees sit cooling on the table while a party works through smaller cold plates and bao traditionally eaten first. Despite many hard surfaces in the dining room, the noise level supports easy conversation even at peak periods. In the end, the pleasures that Sumiao offers are plentiful enough, if still a little too slick and bowdlerized for seekers of more traditional flavors. Those braver souls will still have to venture out to the suburbs—to places like Malden and Quincy, and for Hunanese, to Sei Bar in Wakefield—where a growing number of Chinese restaurateurs are finding an audience for unapologetic regional flavors in more modest, less chichi settings. ◆
Spicy crunchy cucumber
Beef on fire
Sumiao Hunan Kitchen, 270 Third St., Cambridge (617-945-0907) sumiaohunan.com; Hours: Sun.-Wed., 11 am-11 pm, Thu.-Sat., 11 am-midnight; Liquor: Full bar; Reservations: Yes; Parking: Metered street spaces