Whenever restaurateur Sumiao Chen meets a fellow transplant from China, she’s asked where she’s from. When she says “Hunan,” the reply is often “Oh, spicy girl.” But Chen’s experience with the province’s food was anything but one-note, and she’s aiming to expose diners to different sides of Hunan cuisine at her eponymous restaurant, Sumiao Hunan Kitchen, slated to open in Kendall Square in July.
“When I was growing up in my hometown, the food was even more healthy with more vegetables. The Hunan region is surrounded by mountains,” Chen says. “There were lots of different fresh herbs from the gardens. Forty percent of the rice in China is produced there. There’s lots of rice in the mountains.”
After experimenting with more than 300 dishes, Chen settled on a menu of Hunan classics that range from spicy to mild as well as a few Chinese- American favorites for the less adventurous. The dinner menu will include sections for soups, vegetables, proteins and grains. A menu of small plates, available all day, will feature items steamed, grilled or served cold. The lunch menu will cater to a quick-service crowd, offering eight different toppings, such as tomato and scrambled eggs or curry chicken, over the customer’s choice of rice (black, brown, white or mixed grains). There will also be eight types of toppings available over three types of pancakes.
Chen tested more than 300 dishes for her new restaurant.
“I’m a scientist, so developing the menu is kind of a research project for me,” says Chen, who’s opened nearly a dozen restaurants in Massachusetts in the past two decades while working full-time as a project manager and researcher for a pharmaceutical company. “We eliminated a lot of dishes that were too authentic because we didn’t have ingredients available locally that we need to make it. We also got rid of dishes that weren’t healthy and had too high a calorie count.”
There are blue, yellow and magenta chairs throughout Sumiao, which Chen hopes mixes Kendall Square’s familiar industrial-chic look with a few elements from Hunan. The 168-seat, L-shaped interior has nearly as many varied sections as the menu. On the left side is a conference-dining area with low-top tables and a screen available for business meetings. That area leads to a 24-seat high-top communal table shaped to evoke a dragon. On the right side of the space, an open kitchen where the small plates will be cooked overlooks a 45-seat seasonal patio, and a metal curtain closes off a nearby private dining room. In the middle of the restaurant, a mix of low-top tables are scattered through the dining room, which is bookended by a bar on one side and a fireplace on the other. The bar, helmed by Paul Lamprey, will offer traditional Asian drinks with a twist, sake cocktails like a Ginger Saketini and an in-depth sake program.
“People think Chinese restaurants never have a good bar,” Chen says. “I want to change this interpretation. Chinese food is very good to pair with it.”
It’s just another stereotype Chen hopes to counter. She credits the late Chairman Mao Tse-tung, who was born in her hometown, for spreading the notion that all Hunan food is spicy. “He loved very, very spicy food. He had the very famous sentence, saying: ‘If you don’t eat spicy food, you’re not a revolutionary,’ ” Chen says. “And then people thought Hunan food was very spicy. It’s not. Eighty percent of Hunan food is not spicy.”
Sumiao Hunan Kitchen 270 Third St., Cambridge (857-529-7778) sumiaohunan.com