If you are going to all the trouble of finding the Szechuan & Hunan Restaurant (and you should), you might as well go to the trouble of seeking the restaurant's special dishes.Egg rolls can be found in any Chinese restaurant, and they are better in many other restaurants. Fried shrimp, won tons, spareribs and steamed dumplings are likely to be at least as good at the Chinese restaurant around the corner from you as at Szechuan & Hunan. But taking the restaurant's name as your guide to ordering can bring you an uncommonly good Chinese meal.
The menu makes it easy. Szechuan & Hunan appetizers are listed separately. The dan dan noodles need a touch of vinegar to highlight their flavor, but this cold noodle dish has a dark sauce that is hot yet subtle, with new flavors to be noticed in each bite. Bung bung chicken, too, increases your pleasure with each bite, the smooth peanut sauce crunchy with scallion bits and hot, but not searing, a spicy foil for the juicy shredded chicken it covers.
Such an introduction reminds you of the peppery fire that is the theme of Sezchuan and Hunan cooking, but this restaurant mutes its spice unless you ask for your dishes very hot. Peppery they are, but they don't send you racing to the rice bowl to cool your tongue.
Check out the first page of the menu for specialties, and use subsequent pages to round out or balance your dinner. Shredded chicken Hunan style is sharp with ginger, garlic, hot pepper and the faint vinegar tang typical of Hunan sauces, and should be a part of your meal. But if you have already chosen a chicken dish, a search through the menu reveals pork Hunan style. Beef with chef's special sauce, listed on the first page, is an intriguingly fragant dried orange peel flavored dish, faintly sweet and peppery; two pages later the same sauce is offered with chicken.
At least once, try hot spciy shredded crispy beef, Szechuan style; some people don't like the sweetness of the dish, but it is a complicated dish to make, thus not very often found on a menu. Its beef shreds are deep fried, fried again, and yet a third time, so they are crunchy and chewy, a very dark contrast to hairlike shreds of carrot and scallion, sauced with a sweet-hot caramel. Just as complicated but less controversial is camphor and tea-smoked duck, first marinated in aromatic spices, then smoked over camphor and tea, finally fried to a lean crispness.
Whatever the dish, Szechuan & Hunan cooks with the kind of precision that assures juiciness in the meats, cripness in the vegetables, and sauces of balanced, complex flavors with rarely a pool of oil and never a starchy thickness. The one dish that fell short of these qualifications was shredded pork with chef's garlic sauce, often known in Chinese restaurants as fish fragrance sauce because it imitates for this inland province the fish sauces of coastal regions. Szechuan & Hunan's version came as a muddy blend of flavors with excessive salt and a greasiness none of the other dishes had.
But the menu leaves much to explore, even after repeated visits. As heroic as were my meals there, I never got around to ravioli with chili oil or spicy crab in the shell. The repeated delight of the Hunan dishes-lamb and chicken-with their brilliant green broccoli florets, tempted me to try the pork and the bean cake. The vegetables-Chinese cabbage with crabmeat, cabbage core with straw mushrooms, Szechuan sauteed string beans, eggplant with garlic sauce-compel a return vist. And the crispy fish chunks-though their surprise of a sweet and sour sauce left me disappointed-was prepared with a sufficient understanding of fish cookery that I would be eager to get on to tung ting shrimp or one of the 20 other seafood dishes. The casserole dishes-heavy, wintery fare-with assorted meats or seafoods are also great temptations.
It is an extensive menu, an ambitious one. It is matched by the service, which is graceful and prompt, though tea refills can be slow. The dining room is large and pleasantly decorated in light colors, carpeted and quiet.
While most main dishes cost about $5, duck, seafoods and casserole dishes cost more. Noodle and vegetable dishes are as low as $3.25; luncheon specials are as little as $2.45 for a full meal.
Chinese food fanciers have discovered the Szechuan and Hunan provinces these last few years. Now they are likely to discover 1776 Plaza.