Open for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; open for dinner Monday through Thursday 3 p.m. to 11:30 p.m., until midnight Friday. Dinner only Saturday from noon to midnight and Sunday noon to 10:30 p.m. Prices: Lunch entrees $5.25 to $9.95, dinner entrees $6.95 to $16.95. AE, DC, MC, V. Reservations suggested.
Those Hunan people have done it again. As they did on K Street, in Rockville and in northern Virginia, they have built one more beautifully decorated restaurant, this time in the Old Post Office. And like the others, this Hunan is staffed with polished waiters and furnished with a menu of glamorous Chinese dishes.
Some of the routine, though, is wearing a bit thin. This time the food is not as spectaular as it was at the early Hunans (nor has it remained as spectacular at some of those early ones). And some of the dishes designated "First Time Served in Washington D.C. Metropolitan Area" stretch the truth as thin as a noodle; Lettuce Wrapped Chicken, Cold Noodles with Sesame Sauce, Shanghai Steak Kew and others may be this restaurant's first-time variations, but they are already familiar to Washington's Chinese food aficionados.
The most apparent of this restaurant's amenities is its prettiness. At the entrance are a lively fish tank and marvelous large bronze birds. The restaurant is separated into different levels, rooms and nooks to create privacy in a fairly small space, and openness thanks to arches and windows between those spaces. The floral theme -- painted on glass dividers and in prints -- combines with bright colors and lighting to create a cheerful yet quiet oasis.
Service shows that attentiveness is a high priority. The pacing of the courses has been careful, and a waiter asked whether we wanted to wait the half-hour for our Peking duck for a first course or would prefer to have another course while it cooked. As has become the style in fancy Chinese restaurants hereabouts, the waiters -- with only perfunctory inquiry as to your preference -- go ahead and portion the food for you rather than serve it family style. It takes considerable assertiveness to have that job left in your hands.
The food, though good, has been less consistent than the service. First impressions are enhanced by the pretty garnishes and by tiny portions of sherbet that are served after appetizers to cleanse your palate, though the sherbet is too sweet to suit the purpose. And while this kitchen might pepper too timidly for Hunanese fire-eaters, its hot chilies are used skillfully enough to lend flavor as well as heat to their dishes. Furthermore, sauces are kept light and merely wash over ingredients rather than drown them. (One caution: Don't order tropical drinks with your meal; they are sickly sweet and show little evidence of fruit. Try the Chinese beer instead.)
Hunan is by no means cheap, but the appetizers are good values: $2.50 for four dumplings is a bargain even if they are pedestrian, their fillings mild and their wrappers doughy. Crisp shrimp balls are the same price and beautifully textured mousselike fried puffs, though they taste more like fish than shrimp. The best of the appetizers are large portions for two or more to share: Lettuce Wrapped Chicken -- or its vegetarian counterpart, Vegetable Curl -- combines crunch, savor and color in its minced ingredients to be wrapped in lettuce leaves and eaten by hand. The best of the appetizers I tried was Cold Noodles with Sesame Sauce, wiry noodles in a dark brown nutty and tangy sauce only faintly hot, topped with a cold and crisp julienne of cucumbers that deliciously offset the pepper and oil. Hunan Pie is an interesting variation on the Peking Duck theme, with rectangles of very crunchy mock duck -- made of vegetables, shrimp and ham, according to the menu, but like crisply fried duck skin -- wrapped in pancakes with scallions and hoisin sauce.
The real Peking Duck is pretty good, its skin quite crisp and golden, scraped of fat, and its meat tender. But it loses drama when it is carved in the kitchen rather than tableside. And ours was portioned into pancakes by the waiter even down to the second helpings. I would have preferred that the waiter let us roll the second helpings as the need arose. These are corrections easily made, but the rubberiness of the pancakes will take work to improve.
This is not a menu with a wide choice of ingredients; there are no squid or quail or other exotics on the menu, and the seafood dishes concentrate on shrimp rather than a variety of fish. The menu runs the usual range of Hunan, Szechuan and Mandarin dishes, with a full page of Chef's Suggestions that are largely more expensive than the rest of the menu, but seem to be indeed the best dishes. One particularly unusual nd delicious one is Jumbo Shrimp with Seaweed Flavor, the shrimp butterflied and tenderized by a marinating in cornstarch, combined with bright crisp Chinese vegetables, sauced with a translucent glaze and garnished with shredded seaweed that has been fried crisp and tossed with salt and sugar. The combination of seaweed, salt and sugar is startling, especially in counterpoint to the delicate shrimp and vegetables. Orange beef is also done well here, the tenderized meat in a light and greaseless crunch of batter, with the barest wash of mildly hot- sweet orange glaze. Crispy Whole Fish Hunan Style also is nicely fried, crunchy and greaseless, but its sweet-hot sauce is too sweet and plentiful enough to float a school of fish.
The rest of the menu has plenty of choices, though more standard. Hunan Lamb was thinly sliced, yet juicy after its stir-frying with a lot of scallions, and garnished with a mound of spinach (which seemed to have been substituted for the menu's promise of watercress); it wasn't particularly fiery, just bold. Broccoli with Garlic Sauce was bright and crunchy and a surprisingly good value at $5.95, given that it was topped with a great deal of julienned pork; again, its seasoning was relatively mild for a Hunan dish, though not dull. The least interesting dish tasted was Chunked Chicken with Straw Mushrooms and Snow Peas, one of those dishes with "chef's special sauce" that left the impression of a pretty bored chef. The chicken had been beaten to a pulp -- tender but with no taste or bite -- and the bland vegetables and flavorless red pepper flakes added up to insipidity. If you are looking for something not too adventurous but good, the lo mein is a better bet.
Dessert offerings are ice creams in some exotic flavors, fried sugar-encrusted apples or bananas and that old Chinese restaurant standby, cheesecake. Tea in a lovely porcelain pot and a fortune cookie seemed sufficient to us, since the dinner portions are generous. And continuing the spirit of generosity, my cookie had two fortunes.