Open Monday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Friday 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday noon to 10:30 p.m. MC, V. Reservations accepted only for parties of five or more. Prices: main courses at lunch $4.25 to $6, at dinner $4.50 to $12.
So far as many of us are concerned, there can never be
too many Chinese restaurants. Whatever their faults
they are likely to be serving cooked-to-order food
made from largely fresh ingredients at less-than-aver age prices. Thus it is good news that at least three new Chinese restaurants have opened downtown this season, with another expected any day.
Such a development warrants special attention; in the next few weeks we will concentrate on these new establishments (with an intermission or two for other restaurants).
The greatest asset of Hunan Taste--for diners, if not for the restaurant staff--is its location: adjacent to Warner Theatre and around the corner from National Theatre. The problem of pretheater downtown dining is a constant in this city, an annoyance second only to the unfulfilled yearning for more country inns.
Hunan Taste seems up to the challenge of the pretheater diner. One night I rushed in and asked if I could dine within a half hour. The restaurant performed admirably; the waiter pointed out which dishes would take too long, I made my choices and I was in and out, from a glass of wine to a cup of tea, within 30 minutes.
I'm not suggesting anyone depend on arriving at Hunan Taste at 7:15 for an 8 p.m. curtain, but this is a restaurant that understands efficiency.
That is true also at lunch, when the upstairs and downstairs dining rooms are likely to be packed with lunchers in a hurry. Though if you linger late, your check might linger even later.
Efficiency rather than amenity has been Hunan Taste's strength. The rooms are simple, though carpeted and mirrored downstairs, so that they are unmemorable but not unattractive. Service is equally nondescript, willing but not drawing either positive or negative notice. The only quarrel I have had with the customer relations of the restaurant is that the kitchen refuses to serve dinner appetizers at lunchtime. Too bad, because the vegetable curl and crispy walnut delight, for instance, are dishes with which the House of Hunan on K Street has developed a following. And finding them at the Hunan Taste, whose menu bears a resemblance to House of Hunan's, one prefers not to be limited to dinner for trying them.
Actually, the lunch menu is pretty standard: pork, chicken, beef, seafood, vegetables or noodles and rice either "Hunan Taste" style or with garlic sauce, Szechuan style or with vegetables. There are the familiar double-cooked pork, moo goo gai pan and sweet-and-sour dishes. And appetizers are--you could guess --egg rolls, wontons, fried shrimp or the standard soups. Prices are a little above the other new Chinese restaurants: $5 to $6 for most main dishes. Dinner prices, on the other hand, are the lowest of the new restaurants--$7 to $8 for most meat dishes, with some of the "chef's suggestions" unduly high at $9 to $13.
What they add up to, though, is quite respectable Chinese food but not much more memorable than its environment. To be more precise, a few dishes are quite good--appetizers particularly--but they are balanced by disappointments to an average of so-so.
Don't begin with the Polynesian-style drinks listed on the front page. They are usually bad; here they were nearly undrinkable.
The most interesting of the appetizers is crispy shrimp cake. Shrimp pounded to a paste with a faint touch of ginger is deep- fried so that it is surrounded by a lacy crust. A touch underseasoned but not excessively greasy, it certainly outshines the egg rolls, heavy dough envelopes with a filling of chunky vegetables and meats that taste as if they were specially prepared for a bland diet. But blandness is not endemic here: bon bon chicken is deliciously and boldly sauced, its peanut paste peppery, salty and tart, though the chicken itself is not so carefully prepared.
Orange beef, too, is well seasoned, its sauce so dark it nearly looks burned but is merely well caramelized. The beef, like the chicken, is not first quality; it is grainy and coarse, but it is seared to a crusty surface and its pleasant sauce is medium-hot, fairly sweet and well perfumed from dried orange peel. Furthermore, it looks pretty after it has been garnished with green broccoli and a touch of red and served on a gold-rimmed white porcelain plate (lunch dishes are on thick coffee-shop china). If a Chinese restaurant can be measured, as many say, by its shrimp dishes, Hunan Taste wins important points. At $10 tung ting shrimp is not the bargain that some of the dishes are, but it is a plentiful serving of nice shrimp, tender and sweet from careful cooking, prettily butterflied and curled in the cooking, tossed with a few shards of broccoli, a few snow peas, clouds of whipped egg white and slightly thickened translucent sauce flavored with chicken stock. Not an elaborate version, but certainly good.
A couple of good dishes do not a Chinese restaurant make. I hope, likewise, a couple of bad dishes do not a Chinese restaurant destroy. On the dinner menu is "fried vegetarian meat," the "meat" being deep-fried bean-curd sheets and the dish being described as "First time served in this area." One presumes it could also be "Last time served in this area" for it is a plateful of glop. Canned and tasteless mushrooms (the menu said black mushrooms), mushy disintegrating celery cabbage, a few snow peas and straw mushrooms and gray flabs of bean curd, the dish was awash in tasteless liquid. Even worse than this dreadful dish was the pork "Hunan Taste" served at lunch--fatty pork in a greasy pool of peppered black sauce with a few straggles of vegetable.
Not a very clear-cut beginning for Hunan Taste, but perhaps a start for a dining neighborhood in the downtown theater district.