Baijiu is a room of juxtapositions. Here, in its downtown Mercer Warehouse home in Edmonton, Baijiu's dark room is backlit by the late-day summer sun. High-backed brown leather benches are flush up against a delicate turquoise wall bedecked with flowers. Chinese teapots share shelves with liquor bottles behind the narrow, black-tiled bar. Old-school hip-hop is thumping in the background, but it seems to fit with traditional porcelain spoons and plates. It's all very yin and yang, and it works.
Baijiu bills itself as a cocktail bar with Asian-inspired sharing, and its cocktails prove a strong contender among Edmonton's swelling ranks of cocktail bars. The Sakura Spritz ($15) balances rose, hibiscus, Cointreau and bubbles. The entire concoction is effervescent, floral and sparkles like dappled light on a pond. Lazy Susanne ($15) is citrus-forward with pink grapefruit, offset by rhum agricole, Don Julio blanco and aperol, while a creamy Happa/Grappa Fip ($15) finds nigorizake, Auchentoshan scotch and grappa sharing the same glass, cut with orange bitters and topped with egg white foam.
Baijiu's menu is divided into snacks, small plates and large plates, although all are quite sharable. Banh mi crostini ($7) features house-made mortadella and chicken-liver mousse perched on julienned pickled veg, then piled high on crisp slices of baguette and crowned with cilantro. It's all the flavours of a classic Vietnamese sub and then some. Deviled tea eggs ($6) are unapologetically creamy. Crispy shallots and togarashi add crunch, though the expected tea flavour is a bit lost. Pineapple buns ($4) are gently laced with the fruit and served with a swirl of pineapple butter. Little wisps of steam escape when each bun is pulled open, allowing the butter to melt gratefully into the soft dough. This is pure comfort food.
Bread is indeed a strength for Baijiu, given chef Alexei Boldireff's baking background. Mr. Boldireff's pretzel rolls (which were found on his food truck S'Wich) are the stuff of legend. Although those rolls do not appear at Baijiu, the chef's bao are equally delicious. Red braised pork bao ($15) are pillow-soft and stuffed with sticky-sweet braised pork. A few shreds of pickled cabbage add crunch. Lion's head dumplings ($11) are saucy and rich. Each fat morsel is bursting with minced pork and shrimp, its richness cut by vinegar and ginger.
Larger plates include Sichuan confit chicken ($18) and XO squid noodles ($18). The chicken is a gorgeous juxtaposition of tender and crunchy; house hot sauce and a caramelized emulsion on the side allow one to control the level of heat. Squid noodles are literally just that: noodles made out of squid. They are perfectly tender (and not even a bit rubbery), and share the plate with tender baby bok choy and carrots. Salty-piquant XO sauce dresses the whole deal quite nicely.
Dessert finds us back in bao territory, but this time a whole bao has been deep-fried ($7). It's a bit like a doughnut: crispy-tender fairground fare that happily holds a ball of matcha ice cream, once again validating Baijiu's ability to pair together unexpected things.