HUNAN ROSE, 2020 K St. NW. 833-8818
Open: For lunch Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday from noon to 3 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5 to 11:30 p.m., Friday through Sunday from 5 p.m. to midnight. All major credit cards accepted. Reservations suggested. No separate smoking area. Valet parking. Prices: At lunch appetizers $2.50 to $4.50, entrees $6.50 to $11.95; at dinner appetizers $3.50 to $6.50, entrees $7.95 to $35 (for Peking duck). Full dinner with drinks, tax and tip about $35 to $45 a person.
IT'S A TOPSY-TURVY WORLD at Hunan Rose. The ma itre d' h otel seems very European, but has a vaguely English accent; he welcomes you from a podium furnished with a French-looking telephone and a vase of American Beauty roses. And right inside the entrance are two small glass-walled rooms that look like show windows -- but Hunan Rose calls them "private" dining rooms.
What kind of restaurant is it? It is quite beautiful, but that tells you nothing about the kind of restaurant it is.
It is one of two very grand new Chinese restaurants (the other to be reviewed next week). Both are part of the ever-more-complex competition between the House of Hunan/Hunan Rockville/Hunan at the Pavilion/Hunan Express group (to which Hunan Rose belongs) and the Mr. K's/Hunan Lion group.
This restaurant has a lot in common with its nearest competitor, Mr. K's, particularly the waiters' pressuring you into letting them do your ordering. One day at lunch, the men at the next table, finishing their meal, asked if they might look at our menu since they had never gotten to see one. Another day at dinner our waiter acted annoyed with us because we decided to choose our appetizers ourselves rather than let him bring us a dim sum assortment.
Indeed, if there is one outstanding problem at Hunan Rose it is service: too much and too little. Waiters have alternately overwhelmed us by bringing damp washcloths (one before and two after lunch) or interrupting to ask if everything was all right, and, at other times, abandoned us so that we could not get water or even the check. Service has been inconsistent and clumsy, pushy and indifferent. One is always made aware of it, whether it is available or unavailable.
The food, too, has been inconsistent but more of it good than not. The menu is long -- 20 appetizers and twice that many main dishes -- and ranges wildly in price from reasonable ($10 for pork dishes) to outrageous ($35 for Peking duck, although the menu assures you the ducks are brought to the kitchen alive). A few dishes are designated as being without MSG, though I haven't understood why only those dishes. For some reason, the menu headings are in French or some approximation thereof ("Les legumes"), and, for no reason I could guess, the menu describes nicely sauced but perfectly ordinary noodles as "a spectacle that transforms the dough into a uniform string of thin noodles in a matter of seconds." The noodles look like routine factory-made noodles, and if there is any spectacle it is not where the diner might see it.
This is a restaurant where the main dishes tend to be better than the appetizers. Hunan Rose Oysters tasted preserved rather than fresh and were fried in a doughy, greasy batter; smoked golden quail would have been a good dish if it hadn't tasted reheated; fried har gow (noodles stuffed with shrimp) would have been delicious if the noodles had been steamed so that they were tender -- instead, they were fried so that they were as crunchy as raw spaghetti. Much more successful were the shiu mai -- particularly delicate and mousse-light pork-and-shrimp-filled dumplings -- and the spring rolls, chock-full of flavorful shrimp and pork. And Tangerine Beef, ordinarily a main dish, was a wonderful crusty, tender and tangy version served as an appetizer. I also found the Hunan Rose Noodles delicious, in a suave and peppery sesame sauce, though there was no evidence of the pork the menu promised. Soups have been elegant versions of the standbys -- won ton with finely wrought dumplings, and seafood chowder that tasted like a particularly refined hot and sour soup.
The main dishes include a lot of showy things -- meats served in pineapple halves, dishes decorated with vegetable carvings and carefully arranged garnishes. And you can find some very sophisticated preparations. Venison is stir-fried with fresh baby bamboo shoots, and rabbit is gently cooked in a glossy red-brown sauce with fleshy mushrooms and red bell peppers cut into precise diamond shapes. Two of the most extraordinary of the dishes I have tried have been vegetables -- a faintly sweet and intensely tangy Hunan Eggplant served over crispy hair-thin rice noodles, and Oyster Mushroom and Chinese Broccoli, which turned out to be baby bok choy with meaty oyster mushrooms. Also outstanding was the Sea Dragon -- a whole sea bass slashed and fried so that the skin is crunchy and the flesh steamed to a tender fluffiness, then covered with a sauce that is highly spiced to balance the sweetness and sparkling of minced scallions, red peppers and such.
Sometimes, though, the sauces have been greasy -- a pool of oil in the bottom of the Firecracker Lamb -- and the Cho Cho Chicken tasted dry and had little punch to its black bean sauce. Most disappointing, though, have been Crispy Aromatic Duck -- salty, limp and fatty, tasting as if it had been reheated after long storage -- and shrimp dishes, particularly when the shrimp have been fried, since they are small and easily dried out.
This is a kitchen that brings in some wonderful ingredients, from those baby bamboo shoots to fresh ducks. It also should get better crab meat (the waiter admitted the "Fresh Alaska King crabmeat" had been frozen, and it tasted far past freshness) and take care that the shrimp are not iodiney or too small for their cooking method. Its frying techniques can be sloppy -- perfect for the fish, absorbing far too much grease in the shrimp and oysters. It can do very well but it doesn't always.
The flourishes are nice, whether hot towels, sherbet between courses, complimentary fresh tropical fruits for dessert or roses and little gifts presented on departure to celebrate the opening or Chinese New Year. But they don't substitute for consistent and thoughtful attention in the kitchen or dining room.
Hunan Rose arrives when we already have several very grand Chinese restaurants, so it is not a novelty. But it is indeed beautiful, thus worthwhile if you are willing to pay for the packaging, to eat Chinese food in a luxurious environment. The food itself is not notably better than that in many a less grand Chinese restaurant.