For all the charm of Chinatown, one drawback is that its restaurants tend to be as cramped and ramshackle as its streets. I don't care how "authentic" the food is anywhere; eating inside an overly lit, grimly decorated cafeteria-like dining room next to a dusty fake plant is depressing. That's why I'm so excited about Shojo, the new modern Asian spot from the owners of the China Pearl upstairs.
The minimal, industrial-chic room leaves space to breathe, with a handful of high-top tables, and (something that's ever rarer down here) an actual a 10-seater bar with a full liquor license. Walking through the door feels like you're stepping out of the bustle of the streets into another place; Cambridge, to be precise. But a large mural on the tall stone wall depicting the story of Shojo, the mythical half-man, half-monkey on a trek through the world for the never-ending river of sake, is a reminder of where its heart is. (Side note: I want to party with that dude.)
Also breaking the traditional mold for the neighborhood, bar manager Markus Yiao has put together a bar program that would be impressive anywhere in the city, with spirit-forward cocktails like the Rickshaw Express, made with Pierre Ferrand 1840 Cognac, Sandeman ruby port and Berg & Hauk Jerry Thomas Bitters.
"I want to stick to the traditional Manhattan and Old Fashioned formulas," he says. "Spirit, bitter, sugar, water."
Refreshing to hear. Most importantly, says Yiao, is that no matter what type of drink he mixes, there's always potential to make it a step above the rest: "I realized that making a good drink for your guest sometimes has nothing to do with your skills, but your attention to details and effort to try."
Keeping that in mind, you can even make an amazing vodka cranberry, he says. Sometimes you take what the guest tells you, and return with something better than they expected. With that he turns to the wisdom of a great man: "Bruce Lee said, 'Be water, my friend.'"
Try a cocktail
Shojo opened with a spirit-driven list, but Markus Yiao has balanced out the menu with citrus-based cocktails that still manage to stand out, like the gimlet-style Reiko Green. “We do stand out in Chinatown,” Yiao agrees. “First, we don't know how to make sushi, and second, we don’t want to make sake cocktails — although sometimes we do.”
If you go
9A Tyler St., Boston