Mark and Gail Barnett, free-lance critics, also reviewed the Hunan restaurant in Rockville in the July 3 edition of The Magazine. The review was originally misattributed.
Open for lunch Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., for dinner daily 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., for dim sum Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. AE, MC, V. Reservations strongly suggested. Prices: dinner appetizers $1.95 to $5.50, main dishes $5.95 to $21.95. Full dinner with beer or wine, tax and tip about $17 to $28 per person.
"There's a new Chinese restaurant in Rockville," we announce. "So what," you reply, "there are more Chinese restaurants in Rockville than gas stations."
Wait a minute. This one is special. The Hunan is one of the classiest Chinese restaurants in the area, and certainly the classiest in the Maryland suburbs. The proprietors, who also own downtown's House of Hunan, took what was once a Bob's Big Boy and started from scratch with the interior. The result is beautiful: an immense restaurant (it seats 230), wisely divided into a multilevel city of intimate rooms, cozied here by a divider, expanded there by a mirror, and all done in a soft, rosy beige. It is soft aurally; even with a capacity crowd, quiet conversation is generally easy. And it's soft visually, too; warm spotlights over the tables make the food look irresistible and the diners 10 years younger. (Hint: for the most intimate dining, try for the two little rooms adjacent to the bar.) Part of the panache lies in the staff hierarchy--in the smooth, tuxedoed waiters who take your order (most of whom can be relied on to note "no MSG" or "no added salt" if you request it), the gold-coated servers who bring the dishes and the black-tunicked busboys who clear them. This style extends to the serving--in the beauty of the presentation, in the tableside filleting, in the thoughtful dividing of each dish among the diners, in the between-course sherbets and the hot towels. Prices? Not as high as you might expect. Although the "chef's suggestions" can be a bit steep, regular items are only slightly above average, if at all.
The Hunan tries for flair in its food, too, and it succeeds for the most part. There are some novelty dishes (labeled "first time served in Washington area") that are knockouts and others that are merely peculiar.
Among the appetizers, the novelty dishes all work. Crispy cashews or walnuts are deep fried, well drained and coated with the thinnest lacquer of sweetness--a perfect muncher with before-dinner drinks. Chicken salad (which bears no relation to what goes between two slices of bread) is a delightful cold appetizer of shredded chicken and crisp noodles with an intriguing sweet-tart ginger sauce. Chicken in lettuce is a warm mixture of tiny bits of chicken, red and green peppers, and noodles--good, certainly, but outdone by the similar vegetable curl, a meatless bouquet of crisp vegetables in a nicely piquant sweet-hot ginger sauce. The more traditional spring rolls are nicely crisp and ungreasy, and bon bon chicken, with a well-balanced hot peanut sauce, is well trimmed and generously portioned.
A few hints and misses on the "chef's suggestion" page: Chicken with pine nuts is superb, bits of chicken and sweet pepper diced to the size of the tiny nuts, coated with a light, gently smoky sauce. Equally impressive is crispy firecracker shrimp: big, sweet, firm beauties in a subtle, faintly garlicky sauce. Shredded duck with celery, however, is an ill-conceived dish in which strips of untrimmed, uncrisped fat lurk amid the meat. The chef's suggestions also include a couple of "nest" dishes--fried potato hemispheres enfolding meats and vegetables. The "Hunan Combinations" variety is compromised by a brash, salty sauce. A better choice is "Neptune's Catch," in which the sauce is gentler (although perhaps still not gentle enough for the delicate seafood). For a mild, sweetened dish, lemon chicken is pleasant, if unremarkable-- slices of boneless chicken breast in the shape of fish filets, fried in a good batter and coated with a bit of faintly lemony sauce.
On the regular part of the menu, pineapple duck is an excellent sweetened dish with a lot more pizazz than the lemon chicken. Slices of duck breast are cooked just to juiciness, quickly fried to crisp up the skin and fat, and served with a sweet but not overcandied sauce. (Elegance would be well served by deleting the garish maraschino cherry juice on top.) Among the robust Hunan dishes, aim for the lamb, more succulent than the beef. Speaking of robust, double-cooked pork, sliced razor thin, with hot pepper, cabbage and bean curd, is a solid rendition. Pork Peking-style, equally impressive, is a lighter choice, the meat, bamboo shoots and scallions shredded to same-size strips and the slightly sweet sauce smooth and pleasant.
Hunan's finesse stands out in the vegetable dishes. Eggplant Szechuan-style, so often a mound of slippery brown mush, is exemplary here--the slicing perfectly uniform, the cooking careful enough to retain shape, bite and texture, and the sauce hearty, but not overpowered by hot pepper or garlic. Even as homely a dish as bamboo shoots is prepared and sauced beautifully. The sleeper among the vegetables, though, is saut,eed spinach--nothing more than the bright green vegetable, stalks and all, cooked to a crunch in a slightly salty broth. It's a wonderful palate freshener between bites of hot or sweet food.
Desserts? The sesame puff, the crispy pastry and the apple and banana delights are all worth a try. Even more worth a try is a brunch of dim sum; it has a calm, hushed formality here that we like, although you may prefer the hustle-bustle-clatter of most other dim sum places. Look especially for the translucent steamed rice noodle rolls, the pan fried fun gor, the taro dumplings and, for dessert, the jeen doi.
How does it all add up? Theecriticisms notwithstanding, this is an unusually good Chinese restaurant. The question is for how long. In a place this big and already this busy, can the quality control be maintained over the long haul? Even now we've experienced a few slip-ups--undercooked dumplings here, scorched and carelessly prepared kung pao chicken there. If the initial momentum doesn't alter (and if success doesn't bring skyrocketing prices), Hunan could be a flagship among suburban restaurants.