Many Bostonians have specific ideas about Chinatown dining. The bolder ones know to expect terrific, very traditional Asian food at nice prices in less-than-shiny rooms, with workmanlike, often English-challenged service. But the worn trappings and the dearth of familiar American-Chinese dishes can be daunting to less intrepid diners. The 50-seat Shōjō restaurant aims to upend these notions, serving a menu of modernized Northeast and Southeast Asian dishes, lightly inflected with familiar Western bistro elements, in a handsome, understated room with friendly service.
Shōjō also features an excellent 10-seat bar, with inventive, original cocktails like the Reiku Greene ($10), a Last Word–like cocktail garnished with a giant cube of cucumber-infused ice, and the Chairman's Painkiller ($10), a Tiki-like concoction of spiced rum, pineapple and orange juices, and coconut cream. There's also an affordable, compact list of draft and bottled beers ($5–$7), wines by the glass ($7–$13), and sakes ($22–$80 per 330ml bottle). This represents a first: a Chinatown place worth hitting just to have a few drinks, and maybe graze on a few fusion-y small plates. These include a brace of suckling-pig bao ($8) that would do David Chang proud, fried oysters ($9) with smoky/sweet/hot/crunchy garnishes, and hot and sour soup ($7) that recalls Thai tom kha gai pepped up with a poached egg and shiitake croutons. The similarly beautifully plated entrees have a more Western configuration: a big slab of protein with a side or two, like grilled skirt steak ($19) with kimchi butter and mango slaw, and a heap of braised pork short ribs ($18) with a halo of delicate Chinese spinach, perched atop taro mash and sauced with star-anise gravy.
The most welcome surprise here might be the pastas, which reflect a chef skilled with handmade noodles and both Italian and Asian flavors. Big, round ravioli ($16) are filled with slow-cooked pork in a honey-BBQ sauce, topped with chunks of good bacon, Chinese celery, and thin shavings of quality Parmesan. Tagliatelle ($16) tops obviously fresh ribbons of pasta with rich pork meatballs, an even richer ragù, and more of that good cheese. Shrimp capellini egg nest ($15) breathes life into the tiredness of pad Thai, offering thin rice noodles in a sauce of crushed peanuts with hints of lime and dried chili, dotted with strips of red pepper and a fistful of big shrimp, plus a crazy-looking variant of a shredded omelet, a matrix-like wrapper of scrambled egg. The result is wild-looking, piquant, and satisfying, a dish you might wolf down at dinner or the end of a long night out — that is, if you don't cap the evening with the one nightly dessert, like a custardy almond panna cotta ($6) crowned with beautiful cherries.
For the late-night crowd, Shōjō stays open till 1 am on Friday and Saturday and features entertainment, like a DJ spinning eclectic mixes of Motown, soul, and classic disco, as well as live performances by local b-boy and popping crews. This suits the almost nightclub-like décor, which recalls the kind of hip Asian lounges found in Western European capitals: clean lines, exposed brick, lovely but undecorated wood surfaces, rear-illuminated translucent panels, old-school kung-fu movies playing on the bar's big flat-screen, and a gorgeous bathroom. The only eye-catching art is a mural depicting the restaurant's namesake, a thirsty monkey of Japanese legend who ultimately succeeds in his quixotic mission to find a river of sake. That quest might stand for Shōjō, the kind of long-sought Chinatown place where veterans of its traditional restaurants can bring their less-adventurous friends, and both will find a very cool, welcoming place to eat and drink.