Open Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to midnight, Sunday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Prices: Main dishes at lunch $ 4 to $ 6, at dinner $ 5.50 to $ 19.
So seldom does a restaurant open in Chinatown that it is automatically a significant event in Washington. That this one -- Chinatown's first Hunan restaurant -- brazenly sidled in next door to the long-standing Golden Palace doubles the impact. Hunan Gourmet already is crowded at both lunch and dinner. The opening special -- applicable until November 30 -- of a 10-dish dinner plus champagne for $ 12.95 a person (minimum of four people) has certainly helped to pack those tables.
But what will we see when the shine of newness rubs off? Just another Chinese restaurant.
This one has a more extensive menu than most. Ten soups, 18 appetizers, casseroles of duck web or braised fish or mixed meats. Seafoods take a whole page and include abalone and cuttlefish. Duck is served eight different ways. But once you have absorbed the menu you realize that for all its eight pages (plus two for lunch and two for drinks) it serves mostly variations in flavors and combinations rather than in complexity. Extensive, yes, but not as interesting as some Chinese restaurants with smaller menus, and nothing like the opening shot of House of Hunan.
Skip the hot appetizers, with one exception: The triple-flavored chicken, which is tiny parts of wings well seasoned and steamed in foil, is savory and juicy. But, oh, those greasy and mushy spring rolls, those tasteless and greasy spareribs, those identically tasteless and greasy fried shrimp. How a restaurant that makes so outstanding a hot-and-sour soup (the pepper and vinegar in ideal proportion, the broth and vegetables all fresh enough to contribute flavor) can whip up such disagreeable hot appetizers, I don't know. Eight choices among cold appetizers would seem a better bet, though we made the mistake of trying one new to us: "crunchy honey cashew nuts delight." For an outrageous $ 5, it was a small plate of cashews with a faint sugary coating. It tasted not much different from vending machine nuts, and it looked a $ 5 joke -- on us.
From mostly bad beginnings our meals at Hunan Gourmet moved to even chances among the main courses. The best we tried was roast duck Hunan-style, which the waiter recommended among the eight duck dishes. Lean and crisp, very dark and aromatic, it was sharp and smoky from the black beans in its strong, unthickened sauce. Good job, freshly cooked, boldly seasoned. Another waiter did not do so well by us, however, in recommending crispy whole fish Hunan-style. It looked handsome, propped upright on a platter with its sides slashed so they would cook through faster. But the frozen imported yellowfish was chewy and dry, tasting more of the inside of a freezer than the inside of a fish. And the sweet-hot sauce was unappetizingly thick, excessively sweet and no complement even to such a dreary fish.
The stir-fry dishes tended to be nicely seasoned, but floated in grease. And the fresh vegetable most frequently encountered -- broccoli -- was present more in stems than in flowerets. Even the flowerets were once served yellowed, thereby tasting mushy despite the stems being crisp.
These are the small grace notes on which a Chinese restaurant is judged. And few brilliant bursts could be found to counter them. The shrimp, for instance, were lightly cooked, just beyond raw.They would have been a satisfying $ 9 worth, had they not tasted strongly of iodine. Chicken with chile black bean sauce suffered not only from pasty meat, but its sauce was merely hot, without the flavor interplay that makes the combination exciting. Watch the menu's designations of hot-and-spicy. As usual, hot dishes are printed in red and asterisked.But not always. "Double delight house special," as it is called, gives no warning of its chile-oil punch. In any case, it is was a combination of lobster and beef tenderloin that is just ordinary, hardly worth its $ 12.
Hunan Gourmet looks a standard Chinese restaurant, its rectangular dining room half paneled and set with a few lacquer and gilt screens. In fact, it looks rather like a stripped-down Golden Palace, the way it looked before its redecorating. Service, especially considering Hunan Gourmet's crowds and its newness, has been efficient; the most impressive characteristic of the Hunan Gourmet was our waiter's ability to remember our complicated order without writing it down.
But tricks of memory and excellent hot-and-sour soup are not enough to raise a Chinese restaurant above the crowd. And Hunan Gourmet, at least at first blush, is a decent little restaurant in Chinatown, but less news than meets the eye.