Open Sunday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. AE, MC, V. Reservations only for parties over 10. Prices: Dinner main courses $4.25 to $9; appetizers average $3 to $4. Luncheon special of soup and main course, $4.
Chinese restaurants are both spreading around and concentrating, at the same time. Until recently, Chinese restaurants clustered in Chinatown and in the distant suburbs, with far too few of them dispersed through the city. Now, however, Chinese restaurants are opening in neighborhoods that have had no Oriental touches, none more needy than Capitol Hill. As for the concentration, the Hunan race is on. Apparently, nowadays nobody would think of opening a new Chinese restaurant without a Hunanese inclination. Thus, two trends converge for the new Hunan on Capitol Hill.
What makes a Hunan restaurant different from any other Chinese restaurant? In Washington, not much. This restaurant's house specials include four Hunanese dishes, three of them readily found on most contemporary Chinese menus, and the fourth, honey Hunan ham, hardly ever available even here (in fact, the three times I ordered it, I was first told it was a terrible dish, but when I insisted on ordering it anyway I was told it was unavailable). In general, it is a multi-regional menu, with everything from tea-smoked duck to chow mein.
What matters more than the fact that this restaurant calls itself Hunanese is that it is a very good Chinese restaurant.
Hunan's high intentions are apparent from the start. The restaurant is entered by a curved brick stairway under a grand canopy. Inside, carpet and muted lighting set a dignified mood, reinforced by a maitre d' in black tie who leads you to one of several dim rooms lined with old brick and grasscloth. Ceiling fixtures are shaded with bamboo fans, and on the walls are watercolor paintings and a mural on the rear wall. Few places on Capitol Hill -- and fewer of Washington's Chinese restaurants -- are so serene.
Don't be lulled by the tasteful decor into ordering one of the Polynesian drinks. Although the waiter told us fresh pineapple juice is used, it was clearly canned, and sticky sweet. Chinese beer is the least risky drink order, although there is also a small list of very reasonably priced wines.
Asterisks and red print on a Chinese restaurant menus are familiar indications of hot and spicy food. At the Hunan on Capitol Hill, they can also be taken as denoting particularly good dishes. Starting with appetizers, all the standards -- egg rolls, spare ribs and the like -- are dismal renditions. But the fried meat dumplings are outstanding, smaller than typical, with fine glutenous noodle wrappers and highly seasoned meat. Bon bon chicken, too, is intensely flavored with peanuts (chopped, not just peanut butter), sesame oil, scallions and chili peppers. But spicy as it is, the light sauce stops short of searing your palate. The serving is enormous, a good buy at $4.25. Unfortunately, none of the other cold appetizers on the menu has been available on my several visits.
One good test of a Chinese restaurant is its hot and sour soup, and Hunan passes this test with honors. The soup is only lightly cornstarched, well balanced between vinegar and pepper, and thick with meat, bean curd, lily buds, black mushrooms and all the wonderful ingredients one expects in this classic soup.
Another significant test of a Chinese restaurant is shrimp, and again Hunan's score is high. Its shrimp are large and firm, cooked just so that they are juicy, and served in generous measure. The times I have ordered shrimp they have retained a starchy surface from a cornstarch coating not sufficiently cooked through, but the flaw is minor, particularly in light of being served nearly a dozen jumbo shrimp of top quality in a dish that costs less than $7.50.
Perhaps the most difficult dish to prepare well is a whole fried fish, for the temperature and timing conspire to test the chef's skill in producing firm flesh that is neither overcooked nor left rare at the bone. Hunan's whole fish with black bean sauce, in addition to being a very good buy a $7.95, is fried lightly and carefully, the flesh fresh and moist, steaming under a lightly battered crust. The dark red sauce is the hottest of Hunan's spicing, the chili peppers matched in intensity by plenty of garlic, black beans and scallions. Typical of this dish is the slick oiliness of the sauce. If your palate likes a challenge, Hunan's whole fish will be plenty.
Even if Szechuan-Hunan fire is not to your taste, the gentle flavors of Tung Ting shrimp or even the too-familiar shrimp with lobster sauce are delicately constructed, sometimes with too much thickening, but certainly above the norm. And tea-smoked duck is wonderfully smoky, very much like ham, and cooked to a succulent moistness under a crisp skin.
The Hunan lamb and beef show the brilliant interplay of peper, vinegar and soy with a touch of sweetness that distinguishes Hunan dishes from Szechuan. The sauces are dark in color but light in texture, only moderately hot unless you press for stronger peppering. The lamb has tended to be strong meat, so on the whole the beef would be widely appreciated.
Hunan's menu favors seafood -- shrimp, scallops, crabmeat and lobster -- alone or in combination as chow shan shien, sizzling seafood crispy rice, seven sea delight and happy family. But there are enough chicken, beef and pork dishes, both familiar and exotic, to satisfy a range of tastes. The back page even lists five chow meins.
Hunan is a Chinese restaurant of character and beauty. The menu leads you to expect a uniqueness that is not actually there, for the most unusual appetizers and desserts (plus that mysterious honeyed ham) have not been available on my several visits. But, barring those indifferently prepared standard-fare appetizers and luncheon specials that were steamtable mush, the food is fine. The service, again excepting harassed and forgetful service at the height of lunch, is as professional and elegant as the surroundings. Thus, with the addition of Hunan on Capitol Hill, that section of Massachusetts Avenue between 2nd and 3rd Streets NE is an ever more important restaurant neighborhood.