Sunday, July 14, 2024

Tender slices of duck at Sumiao Hunan Kitchen in Cambridge’s Kendall Square. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Nowhere else but in Frank Herbert’s “Dune” is spice so essential than at Sumiao Hunan Kitchen in Kendall Square. The heart and soul of Hunan cuisine is color and spice, and dry chilis, green beans and red and green peppers make their way into many a dish. For anything you order – by which I mean everything – the question is “How spicy do you want that?” So, folks who dig spicy and hot, this is your spot. 

The menu is vast but well sectioned. The things I was itching to try – the fresh lobster and crab dishes – must be ordered 48 hours in advance. They come either spicy or ginger-and-scallion style, which is a staple on the menu: I’d say nearly half the dishes come that way and, trust me, you can get them with any desired heat quotient. Items that amaze and are begging me to try at later dates are the angry frog (yup, fresh bullfrog), umami shrimp egg tofu, duck yolk crispy shrimp and crispy duck. The menu has a strong vegetarian lean too, with avocado and Impossible meatballs, and pickled beans and Impossible beef over noodles among the seemingly limitless choices. Your side rice comes in three flavors: basic white, healthy brown and black, also know as purple or forbidden rice.

I was more drawn to the small plates; the appeal of Sumiao is having diverse things on the tabletop to pick at. I did try entrees: the ginger scallion chicken and monthly special of snow white double crispy fish. The former was fine, with nice ginger and dry spice accents, but felt like something I could have at any number of other restaurants. The latter was unique, to be sure, a shallow bowl of pristine diced white fish mixed with crisp, fresh hot oil-sautéed red and green peppers. (I was not sure if it was tilapia or swai, an Asian catfish that dominates the menu, including for the lava fish dish, but upon asking was told it’s an Asian carp.) The dish has a strong black and dry chili pepper snap to it that makes your mouth pucker, and the fish was tender and flavorful, but what I was missing was the “crispy” part of the billing.

An Asian carp is used in Sumiao’s double crispy fish, a monthly special. (Photo: Tom Meek)

My real delight was for the smaller fare, the mala duck, tender thin slices – almost carpaccio thin – in a light chili cilantro sauce, lean and delectable with a slender edge of crispy skin and rendered fat; the cold shredded bean curd salad, which came in a similar sauce bolstered by soy and ginger; and the garlic calamari. All were solid winners. Those not tried but desired were the green peppers with a century egg (preserved egg), plum-flavored kidney beans; and a bounty of baos (mushroom and lard!). Billed as Hunan tapas on the menu, I think these small plates to taste and share are the best way to enjoy Sumiao.

The bar offers a complete list of Chinese-themed cocktails, Asian beers and sake. Several days of the week Sumiao has live jazz or classical music. It’s a confluence of varying culture, lifestyles and flavors at a fine-Chinese eatery with a biotech after-work vibe to it and a spare, spacious bar top and winding dining area with intimate nooks and open areas for larger parties. “Casual cosmopolitan” feels about right.

Sumiao Hunan Kitchen, 270 Third St., Kendall Square, Cambridge

Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in the WBUR ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.