Open Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5 to 10 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 10 p.m. AE, D, MC, V. Reservations for dinner only. Prices: Main courses $4.50 to $5.50 at lunch, average $7 to $10 at dinner. Full dinners of house specialties with tax and tip average $20. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, By John Ryan
House of Hunan is an uncommon Chinese restaurant -- uncommonly good, uncommonly elegant, with an array of dishes and special touches found nowhere else in Washington. Its lunch, though commendable, is not a fair test of the restaurant at its best. No reservations are taken, and you won't be seated until your party is complete. You'll find the three dining rooms, with their rainbows of silk waving from the ceiling downstairs, salmon-colored banquettes against silvery gray walls upstairs, every bit as lovely as at dinner, but the lunch menu is abbreviated to span only fairly commonplace Chinese dishes. Good, plentiful, sprightly Szechuan and Hunan food -- shrimp Hunan-style, shredded beef or pork -- and well-executed Mandarin or Cantonese stir-fry dishes averaging $5 make up most of the offerngs, though you may be able to persuade the kitchen to serve something from the dinner menu.
It is at dinner that House of Hunan truly blooms. In the evening you can (and should) reserve ahead. Each white-clothed table is adorned with one anthurium. The lighting is soft and, thankfully, so is the non-Oriental music. The formally dressed waiters hover over your table. At least at first they were known to pin baby orchids on the women's lapels. They have the time and inclination to describe the house specialties and discuss their origins. They present the platters, which are handsomely decorated, and will serve each diner from the platters if you wish. They offer perfumed hot cloths between courses and at the end of dinener. (That nicety appears even at lunch, at the end of the meal.) And somewhere in the midst of a multi-course meal they are apt to serve tiny crystal cups of lime sherbet, explain that it is a French touch "to refresh your mouth."
As for what to order, start at the beginning and work your way through. That way you wil be emphasizing appetizers and chef's suggestions. The menu designates with tiny triangles those dishes being served for the first time in Washington; while the designation is largely inaccurate, and many of those dishes have been served in other local restaurants, they do indicate the dishes which are most special. Asterisks on the menu indicate "hot, delightful and appeatizing," I'd agree, and add that hot peppers are handled judiciously, and nothing is likely to be searing.
Most original among the appetizers are "crispy shrimp ball" ($3.50), four mousse-light spheres of shrimp fluff coated in bread cubes and fried, looking like porcupines and tasting like sea foam. Vegetable curl ($5) -- lie the shrimp ball sufficient for two -- is an intriguing mince of dried mushrooms, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots and celery touched with smoky sauce and wrapped in envelopes of lettuce. Spring rolls ($2) are wrapped in a fine, thin homemade-tasting dough, but their filling is pasty and seems mainly cabbage. Along with a few more hot appetizers, there are also eight cold appetizers, from bean curd to jellyfish. While the hot, peanut-sauced bon bon chicken ($4.50) is no better than a dozen other restaurants might prepare it, the cold appetizers include unforgettable "crispy walnut delight" ($4.50), large walnut halves fried in a thin, faintly sweet glaze. The shrimp balls and the walnuts alone would send me to House of Hunan.
Another memorable dish is to be found among the soups, a confection called "minced squab and scallops in bamboo container." (At least that is what it would be called if somebody had proofread the menu, which culminates its typos with "capachino" under beverages.) The finely minced squab and scallops are molded in a tiny bamboo cup and steamed for hours, finishing as a kind of very delicate dumpling afloat in a few spoonfuls of concentrated elixir. Legend says that this soup will cure all kinds of ills; I would believe anything about it.
Main courses cover five pages, but the unusual ones are concentrated on the first. The chef d'oeuvre is whole fish Hunan-style (at $9.50, one of the few bargains on the menu), the large sea bass fried just enough to cook it through but keep it moist, and battered just lightly enough to seal the meat but not overweight the fish. Its sauce illustrates the brilliance of the Chinese matingof sweet and hot. The sauce is thick with chopped red and green peppers, hot and mild, with garlic and scallions, a touch of vinegar that mutes the sweetness. It is an explosion of flavors. Orange beef ($8.95) is served at many restaurants, but none like the House of Hunan's. Rather than being paper thin, the meat is quarter-inch thick tender steak slices, lightly coated with spices and enough starch to form a light crust. It is stir-fried with dried orange peel and whole hot red peppers (which are not meant to be eaten except by masochists), left slightly rare inside. Again, it is a scintillating contrast of hot and faintly sweet, crisp and soft. Similar strong contrasts of texture, flavor and color account for the success of dragon and phoenix ($14.95) -- peppery chunks of chicken with snow white lobster meat -- though the lobster was severely oversalted; tung ting shrimp with its soft white shrimp and steamed egg white versus crisp bright green broccoli; and crisp prawns with walnuts. If you don't mind a very sweet main dish, sample honeyed ham, the Smithfield-style thinly sliced salty ham a fasciating background for translucent honey sauce and lotus seeds, the ham tucked into the pockets of steamed bread and the lotus seeds served on the side.
Only one of the chef's specials I tasted was less than an adventure; duck with young ginger roots was heavy and rich, the slices of preserved ginger pleasantly biting alongside the soft skinless and boneless duck, but in sum it was not distinctive. the rest of the pages list beef, pork and chicken dishes averaging $7 and covering the usual Szechuan, Hunan, Mandarin, Cantonese and Shanghai range. Seafoods are particularly plentiful, averaging $8, and including primarily shrimp and fish filets, with a couple of lobster and scallop dishes. Vegetables and noodles are mostly $5.50. Whatever the choice, it is likely to be crisp where it should be, tender and moist where intended, seasoned with balance and free of excess sauce, grease or starch. Good, very good Chinese cooking is the norm. Even the drinks, though hardly Chinese, are creditable, whether a pina colada, wine or imported beer.
Chinese restaurants in America are expected to serve ice cream for dessert; newer Chinese restaurants add toffee bananas as well. House of Hunan does not break tradition. But it also ventures into more esoteric Chinese desserts, a steamed raisin-and-nut stuffed "thousand layer cake" and glutinous fried water chestnut cakes with dates and bits of crunch for contrast. Chinese desserts have about as much mass appeal to Americans as Chinese music, so these are for experimenters.