Open daily 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. for lunch, 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. for dinner, until 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. AE, MC, V, DC. Reservations suggested for large parties. Prices for lunch: appetizers $2 to $4.50, entrees $4.75 to $6.50; for dinner, appetizers $1 to $13.95 (combination platter), entrees $6.75 to $18. Complete dinner with wine or beer, tax and tip about $20 a person.
Chinese restaurants in America were once places one went just to eat. Now one goes to dine. There are now waiters in black tie, cloths on the tables and space between those tables, art on the walls and decoratively carved vegetables on the plate -- elegance has become routine in Chinese restaurants. What's more, in Chinese restaurants the ingredients are fresh (have you ever found frozen broccoli in a Chinese kitchen?), and the cooking almost never sinks below decent. By its nature Chinese food is cooked to order, except perhaps on buffets. And it is usually moderately priced. In other words, if you're among unfamiliar restaurants and looking for good value, Chinese restaurants now are routinely better than ever.
The Hunan Dynasty is an example of what makes Chinese restaurants such reliable choices. A great restaurant? It is not. A good value? Definitely. A restaurant to fit nearly any diner's need? Probably.
First, it is attractive. There are no silk tassels, blaring red lacquer or Formica tables; instead there are white tablecloths and subtle glass etchings. It is a dining room -- or dining rooms, for the vastness has been carved into smaller spaces -- of gracefulness and lavish space.
Second, service is a strong priority. The waiters look and act polished, and serve with flourishes from the carving of a Peking duck to the portioning of dishes among the diners. I have found some glitches -- a forgotten appetizer, a recommendation of two dishes that turned out nearly identical -- but most often the service has been expert.
Third, the food is largely good if not quite wonderful, and it is proudly arranged on platters and garnished with vegetables carved into flowers, a far cry from the old stainless-steel-covered-dish Chinese restaurant style. This is the kind of Chinese restaurant sophisticated enough to have a separate wine list and to stock good Asian beers.
Then there is the menu, long and eclectic, with samplings from Szechuan, Peking, Canton and Hunan styles and a satisfying array of meats and seafoods even though it strays no farther than shrimp, scallops, lobster and two whole fish dishes among the seafoods. Prices are moderate, with most main dishes $6 to $10. You get a lot for your money.
Among the appetizers, there are few standouts, though only the spring rolls -- with a filling that is nearly all cabbage under the thin, crisp wrappers -- are a definite disappointment. Fried wontons are greaseless and crisp; meat dumplings tend to be bland and their dough a bit crumbly, but they are certainly acceptable; and the cold dishes and soups are just good enough, not memorable. The best of the appetizers is sweet-and-sour spareribs, small juicy pieces that are rich with the flavor of five-spice powder and sweetened soy marinade.
As for the main dishes, don't take the "hot and spicy" asterisks too seriously, for this kitchen is not out to offer you a test of fire. The peppers are there, but not in great number. And, like the appetizers, the main dishes are generally good but not often memorable. Fried dishes -- and an inordinate number of them seem to be fried -- are crunchy and not greasy. Vegetables are bright and crisp. Eggplant with hot garlic sauce is properly unctuous; Peking duck is as fat-free and crackly- skinned as you could hope (though the pancakes were rubbery). And seafoods -- shrimp, scallops, lobster -- are tenderly cooked, though they are not the most full-flavored examples of those ingredients.
I have found only one dismal main dish in a fairly broad sampling: lemon chicken had no redeeming feature in its doughy, greasy, overcooked and underseasoned presentation. Otherwise, not much goes wrong. Crispy shrimp with walnuts might be preferable stir-fried rather than batter-fried, but the tomato-red sauce and crunchy walnuts made a good dish. Orange beef could use more seasoning but the coating was nicely crusty and the meat tender. Dragon and Phoenix might have been more successful if the chicken hadn't been deep- fried (and nearly identical to the General Tso's Chicken), and the lobster had little seafood taste, but both were pleasant in texture and flavor. And even better than those dishes listed as Chef's Specials were scallops and shrimp with garlic sauce, blanketed with julienned vegetables and gingered brown sauce; a fried whole fish strewn with chunky green peppers and onions in a sweet-sour sauce that avoided being cloying; and homey, gravy-drenched pan-fried noodles with plenty of mixed meats.
So with the opening of the Hunan Dynasty, Washington did not add a stellar Chinese restaurant to its repertoire, but that is not necessarily what the city needed anyway. Hunan Dynasty is a top-flight neighborhood restaurant -- with good food, caring service and very fair prices -- that is attractive enough to set a mood for celebration and easygoing enough for an uncomplicated dinner with the family after work.