This is Devra First’s last review. She will become food editor when Sheryl Julian steps down at the end of the year. A new restaurant critic will be announced in coming weeks.
It is Friday night in Woburn and the city is asleep. But on the upper floor of a historic mansion just off the highway is a scene out of a louche cabaret from a more romantic era. In a lounge with the feel of a private library, couples drape on leather couches, legs entwined. At wide tables, patrons sip potions from increasingly exotic vessels: a cut-glass urn with a spigot, a copper pineapple, a giant flamingo. A generously inked bartender in a leather-strapped apron applies drops of tinctures from apothecary bottles and arranges lush green sprigs of mint in glasses filled with perfectly cut ice, as attentive as a florist. Diners with chopsticks pluck morsels from platters festooned with chiles, emitting the fragrance of star anise and ginger.
This place is like a puzzle box — unlocking each of its dimensions leads to another surprise. First there is Baldwin Mansion, built in 1661 and rebuilt in 1803, an edifice of right angles with a pillared entrance, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. Enter and find yourself inside Sichuan Garden II, a mom-and-pop Chinese restaurant, the atmosphere half one thing, half the other — oil paintings and fireplaces, fish tanks and incense.
Turn your head: Over here is the Baldwin Bar, domain of Ran Duan, son of the mom and the pop. He took over the bar program in 2009. His parents also operate Sichuan Garden in Brookline; Duan plans to remodel and expand the bar program there next year. (If this all sounds familiar, it is likely because last year an associate professor at Harvard Business School took the restaurant to task for discrepancies between online and real-life menu prices. The episode proved to be Internet catnip.) The room is cozy, dark, and anchored by the wraparound bar at the center. Old-school hip-hop plays and every stool is taken. That is because bartenders here win awards like other people eat chips, not stopping at just one. On the foyer wall hang GQ spreads featuring Duan and crew in fairly fabulous ties.
Now they are taking things to the next level. On the other side of the bar is a staircase. Someone will show you up to the new lounge, opened in October and called the Baldwin & Sons Trading Company. Operating Thursday through Sunday, it features its own cocktail list, more inventive yet than the already boundary-pushing version downstairs.
At the Baldwin Bar, you might sample a drink called Out of All the Gin Joints, which tastes like a gimlet nestled up by the fireside, warmed with cinnamon and vanilla, or one of several variants on a Mai Tai. You will certainly find the Father’s Advice — a rum, amaro, vermouth, and sherry drink touched with banana cordial that falls somewhere between a Manhattan and an El Presidente — the cocktail that won Duan this year’s national Bacardi Legacy competition.
The Baldwin & Sons Trading Company is a bit more soigne. The list picks up on the library atmosphere, divided into the categories “light reading,” “nonfiction,” “epic saga,” and “book club” (large-format drinks for the group). These are drinks for cocktail geeks, highlighting spirits, focused on presentation. The gin-and-lime Betty Draper comes crowned in coconut air, looking like an ice queen but tasting like an island vacation. The rye drinker should not miss the World’s Fair, featuring Willett 2-year rye, Punt e Mes vermouth, walnut liqueur, amaro, and aged bitters. Consume in appreciative silence, blinking occasionally, a la Nick Offerman.
The Nose Dive takes the Paper Plane cocktail in a tiki direction with pineapple (and comes with a paper airplane garnish); in the Baldwin Apple Revised, the flavors of mulled cider meet the flip, like apple pie with whipped cream. Shards of dried apple are served in an eggshell affixed to the base of the glass, a snack that enhances the sweetness of the drink.
The Elixir of Youth showcases silky Absolut Elyx vodka, distilled in copper and served in that copper pineapple with Combier grapefruit liqueur, lime and yuzu, and the Baldwin Bar’s excellent house ginger beer. I’m rarely a fan of mules and the like, as the ginger soda can be overwhelming, but this one is brilliantly balanced. The Oracle combines Hendrick’s gin, the spiced cordial falernum, St-Germain, absinthe, and ylang ylang fog. It’s served, smoking, in an egg-shaped glass vessel with two chambers, one for the drink, one for the dry ice.
Service upstairs is polished. Fresh glasses come, unasked for, as your party sips its way through a vat of sherry cobbler. A dram of amaro appears at the end of the meal, to aid digestion. In either space, asking for the bartender’s choice yields just the drink you didn’t know you yearned for.
Both bars offer an abbreviated version of Sichuan Garden II’s extensive menu. If you are not familiar with the floral, numbing properties of Sichuan peppercorns, this is a fine place to be initiated (the kitchen occasionally leans too heavily on the spice). Ginger, garlic, bean paste, and many forms of chile are also in full effect. Appetizers and fried items are particularly strong. Some of the dishes are hauntingly good. Exploring the menu is a challenge when there are items you can’t imagine not ordering every time you come.
For one, the Sichuan pickled vegetables, a dish of chopped daikon, cabbage, and carrots with ginger, chiles, and Sichuan peppercorns: crisp, bracing, and complex. I could eat these for lunch with plain white rice every day of the week. After a feast, I still get an order to go.
I am hooked on the tofu crepes, tofu skins filled with shiitake mushrooms and bamboo shoots, served room temperature. They are chewy, tender but with just enough resistance, with a woody, almost musty flavor that is deeply compelling.
And I just cannot get past the Chengdu dry hot chicken wings, double-battered and tossed in a hot wok with garlic, ginger, and chiles. The maple-sriracha sauce on the side is great, but I mostly ignore it, fixated on the crisp, juicy, spicy pieces of chicken. It took me probably five visits to order the barbecue version instead, cloaked in a sticky, bourbon-Angostura glaze, the sweet-and-bitter flavor profile as complicated as a cocktail. In other words, they are also tremendous.
Dan dan noodles and pork dumplings with chile vinaigrette are favorites, but “sweet and pungent” ribs are dry and not particularly interesting in the scheme of things.
Double-cooked fish fillets are crisp and golden, flavored with leeks and chiles; a whole tilapia is braised and smothered in rich chile-miso sauce. In many restaurants, whole fish come with nervous warnings from servers, concerned that diners will balk at the spectacle of head and tail. Here, the plate arrives with no commentary and nothing more than a big spoon for your filleting pleasure. They trust customers can handle it.
When a bowl appears brimming with Chengdu duck stew, the scent of star anise curling into the air, everyone gasps in appreciation. Scoop up pieces of tea-smoked duck and wood-ear mushrooms along with the fragrant broth, accompany with rice and sauteed pea pod stems or Chinese broccoli, and you have a lovely meal. Kung bao chicken, strewn with peanuts, is a sweeter, gooier version than I’ve had elsewhere.
A house special features whole Japanese eggplants, caramelized into softness, with tender shreds of minced chicken. The deep brown sauce tastes caramelized, too, heady with garlic and scallions. There is also a meatless eggplant dish with spicy garlic sauce; the Baldwin Bar menu has enough options for a vegetarian to leave satisfied. At the end of the night, the only thing missing is a comfortable bed. Baldwin Mansion would make an excellent B&B.
A world-class cocktail bar inside a Sichuan restaurant inside a historic mansion in the suburbs: Rather unlikely. Very wonderful.
THE BALDWIN BAR
★ ★ ★
2 Alfred St., Woburn,
781-935-8488, www.thebaldwinbar.com All major credit cards accepted. Main floor wheelchair accessible; stairs only for upstairs lounge.
Prices Appetizers $5.95-$12. Entrees $10.50-$25.
Hours Sun-Thu 5-10 p.m.,Fri-Sat 5 p.m.-midnight.
Noise level Convivial.
What to order Sichuan pickled vegetables, tofu crepe, pork dumpling with chile vinaigrette, chicken wings (Chengdu dry hot or BBQ), dan dan noodles, whole fish with chile miso sauce.
★ ★ ★ ★ Extraordinary
★ ★ ★ Excellent
★ ★ Good
(No stars) Poor
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.