The Baldwin Mansion in Woburn seems an unlikely location for culinary innovation. The stately three-story manor was built in 1661 by one of the town’s founders. Today it stands on a shrinking spit of land, almost surrounded by a rising tide of strip malls, highways, and shabby exurbs. Its exterior is painted a grand yellow with neat white trim; within, many of the former bed, living, and drawing rooms are now used for dining. A huge sign blares across the top of the building: Sichuan Garden II. Inside, at the ground-floor bar, amid dark wood and muted multicolored lights, Ran Duan has his laboratory.
Duan, whose family has been in the restaurant business for nearly 20 years, has presided over the bar side of things since 2009. He looks rather like a lab tech, all precision and intensity as he prepares each drink, and then, in a manner somewhere between nerdy and urbane, he explains the result to each recipient. His goal is to mix cocktails that leave patrons awestruck – by, say, his finesse, innovation, or liberal use of chili pepper (frequently, more than one of these). Some are classic recipes perfected by superior ingredients and techniques: the manhattan, the Sazerac. Some are inexplicable combinations with big, layered tastes, such as his apricot balsamic sour (preserves, Bulleit bourbon, bitters, a bit of balsamic vinegar) or the Nobody But You (blueberry gin, Thai chili, elderflower liqueur, lemon juice, cranberry shrub). In even the most surprising combinations, there is rarely a note off-key.
“Before I took over, we were the cliched Chinese restaurant doing scorpion bowls, mai tais, and zombies,” says Duan with a laugh. He describes the world he set out to change: over-sweet blue drinks, “bad booze,” the dreaded sour mix. This winter he will open a new bar in Boston’s South End.
Duan was born in China’s Sichuan Province in 1986. Three years later, his parents, both promising opera singers, received music scholarships to Louisiana State University and moved the family to Baton Rouge. Opera turned out to be less lucrative than expected. “Like a lot of Chinese families,” Duan deadpans, “what are we gonna do then but cook Chinese food?” His parents opened Sichuan Garden in Brookline in 1994, and it is still regarded as one of Boston’s best Chinese restaurants. (For the record, the food at Woburn’s Sichuan Garden II is excellent as well.)
At the age of 22, Duan graduated from Johnson & Wales, the culinary school in Providence, with a hospitality degree and returned to the Baldwin Mansion. His original intent had been to focus on restaurant management in school. Instead, while his peers were discovering dollar drafts and well drinks, he took a mixology class and learned to prepare the high-end cocktails he was tasting on frequent pilgrimages back home to Boston. “The whiskey smash at Eastern Standard, it was a revelation. Whiskey sour done fresh. Fresh lemons, good good whiskey, and the mint. I’d never had anything like that before.” Duan took his father to the bar. Dad was also impressed.
The following year was a relentless analysis of the taste, method, composition, and viscosity of the best cocktails in town. His father funded the enviable research – at Eastern Standard, Deep Ellum, Drink, Green Street Grill, and Craigie on Main, among others – as well as the build-out of the Woburn restaurant’s mixology test kitchen. Ran Duan became a devotee of the noted cocktail blogger Lauren Clark of DrinkBoston.com, following her discoveries religiously and making more of his own. He also made colleagues and friends of the city’s most notable bartenders.
At this point, Duan, at only 25, may be surpassing them. Take tonight’s version of the manhattan: Silver Oat un-aged whiskey, Licor 43, Lillet blanc, orange bitters, and vanilla essence, served in elegant crystal and without the distracting maraschino cherry. With a sip, the mansion is swept back to its heyday. Even routine ingredients, like tonic water, are painstakingly reconsidered. Instead, he uses a dash of surreal quinine syrup made in-house with cinchona bark, allspice berries, lemons, citrus zest (“swath” mixologists call it), agave, and salt.
With the help of staffers Mickey Houang, 22, and Jamie Solomon, 25, Duan prepares other syrups of cardamom, basil, and vanilla (they change seasonally). And they make a soft ginger beer that actually tastes good: spicy and clean, and excellent either chilled or as part of drinks like the Gin Gin Mule (with Plymouth gin, mint, and lime). On the bar, small brown dropper-bottles hold homemade tinctures of Thai chili, Madagascar vanilla, and pecan. A half-dozen varieties of bitters are also at the ready.
With so many interesting ingredients, the potential exists for either symphony or cacophony, and the bartender needs to be a chef of sorts. A lifetime around the Sichuan kitchen appears to be an asset for Duan. “I can cook Italian cuisine better than Chinese,” he says. “But I like to think I developed a great palate along the way.”
The trio from Woburn will be moving – by mid-December, Duan hopes – to the undervisited 45-seat basement bar of Jae’s restaurant on Columbus Avenue in the South End. They’re planning a redesign now and calling the new bar Hair of the Dog. Duan expresses excitement at serving a crowd that may be more geared to appreciate what he is doing. “A lot of people are overwhelmed. You’ve got to know your alcohol, your spirits, your liquors, your vermouths,” he says, “to understand our menu.” Duan’s young team is managing to innovate as rarely seen in Boston: brilliantly and on a shoestring budget. I, for one, am ready to study for his bar exam. Line up the cocktails, chef.