HUNAN NUMBER ONE RESTAURANT -- 3033 Wilson Blvd. in the Clarendon Square Building, Arlington. 528-1177. Open: Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. AE, Choice, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $1 to $3.50, entrees $4 to $6; dinner appetizers $1 to $3.50, entrees $6 to $17. Full dinner with wine or beer, tax and tip about $15 to $25 per person; dim sum lunch or brunch less than $10 per person.
larendon has begun its second stage as a restaurant neighborhood. Along Wilson Boulevard, storefront Vietnamese restaurants have proliferated, all of them casual and barely adorned. But as they have spread to the side streets, they have begun to edge up the glamour scale ever so slightly: My An opened an upscale branch named Nam Viet, then added a fashionable awning to its original storefront. Queen Bee added murals and columns to its Wilson Boulevard storefront dining room.
Now comes Hunan Number One, a Chinese restaurant and the keystone of a yet-to-be-occupied high-rise office building. With the planting of two large golden Chinese lions at its front door, the restaurant, in effect, reflects the increasing gentrification of this homespun little neighborhood.
Hunan Number One's manager had worked at the sumptuous Hunan Rose restaurant downtown; the head chef came from Hong Kong. Here was to be a staff with big-city restaurant experience. Enough waiters were hired to keep a steady flow of service -- filling teacups, changing plates and inquiring after diners' satisfaction. A fish tank was installed so diners could select their own main dish. Menus were printed with full-color photos of glamorous dishes. And carts were set to roll through the dining room for weekend dim sum brunches.
But like the empty office building in which it is housed, Hunan Number One may be premature. It hasn't yet fulfilled its own ambitions. The fish tank contains only lobsters, which hardly sets it apart from its competitors. And while the menu is one of the most interesting hereabouts, the cooking is only ordinary.
The meal most worth trying at Hunan Number One is dim sum. The list of dishes is long, and on weekends there are such specialties as steamed shrimp dumplings shaped into little rabbits and dessert buns with pineapple or coconut cream, and aficionados' dishes such as braised pigskin with turnip, tripe with five kinds of spicy herbs and congee with pork and preserved eggs. Even on weekdays, the choice includes seven sweet and nearly 30 savory pastries, all modestly priced at $2 or less a plate.
Outstanding among the dim sum are the pork buns, steamed or baked and dripping with plenty of sweet-spicy roast pork filling. Rice-noodle cre~pes, slick and slithery wrappers with bits of beef, pork, shrimp or chicken, are a delicious intermingling of sharp and bland flavors. And the various steamed, stuffed noodles, especially those with shrimp fillings, are delightful. Fried dumplings, though, including the spring rolls, are greasy and stuffed with ingredients of little flavor.
Service during the weekend dim sum crush can be confused. Not all of the waiters who roll the carts through the dining room understand English well enough to respond to questions. Otherwise, the service is awfully nice, with the waiters putting on a spiffy show to reinforce the feeling that this is an elegant place. They bring finger bowls and towelettes for messy dishes, and usually remember bowls for shells.
What is most intriguing about Hunan Number One is the menu itself. The page of chef's special recommendations includes three lobster dishes, braised duckling blood and shrimp steamed in a lotus leaf. On this page alone there are 14 complex seafood dishes. Two following pages feature Hong Kong-style Cantonese cuisine with more than two dozen seafood dishes, including abalone, conch, squid, whole crabs and lobster. Then come the house specialties. Here again there is lobster, with another half-dozen seafood dishes and such poultry extravaganzas as crispy duck with pineapple in lemon sauce, sesame chicken with lemon sauce and Peking duck. In addition, the menu offers regular dishes, including appetizers, soups, another page of seafood, beef, pork, poultry, noodles and desserts. However, you have to pick and choose these many temptations carefully.
Among the Polynesian drinks the planter's punch is pretty good, but most of the others are sticky-sweet and terrible, and served in the hokeyest glasses around.
Appetizers have their assets, but none of them adds up to much. The lovely fried rounds called golden crab cakes have hardly a taste's worth of crab filling; the topping on the sesame shrimp toast is light and mousse-textured, but the toast base is greasy. Spring rolls taste mostly of raw shredded cabbage while pan-fried dumplings taste more of dough than of meat, though they were much improved the second time around. And simple roast pork is drowned in opaque salty gravy that steams the crustiness out of the pork. The menu also offers deep-fried broccoli and mushrooms, which taste like a duel between tempura and pre- packaged batter-fried hors d'oeuvres in which the tempura lost the fight.
Your chances are better with main dishes. First, you can't go wrong with a live lobster brought to the table for you to inspect its activity level before it is cooked. And it is served so promptly that you know there was not time to overcook it. The classic Peking duck is also a sensible option here. It is carefully sliced, with the fat removed from the crisp skin, and, at $17, it is a bargain to boot.
The best dish of all, though, is the plainest of all. Salted baked chicken looks like nothing more attractive than big chunks of boiled chicken. It is boiled in herbed broth and baked in a coating of herbed salt, then spiked with ginger sauce. Its flavor is bright enough to compensate for its drab appearance.
Otherwise I would aim toward the seafood. Squid is very fresh and tender, scored and stir-fried so that it is golden edged and curled. It also can be ordered salt-baked or with spicy herb salt and hot chili. With clams in the shell -- a large portion of delicate tiny clams -- peppery, tangy black bean sauce is delicious except that the beans, soy and clams add up to a lot of salt. Steamed shrimp in lotus leaf is a dish that looks like a celebration: a big leaf package slit and the top pulled back to reveal a regiment of shrimps in the shell that have been sealed in the package and steamed in black bean sauce. Unfortunately, the sauce is so thick and salty it drowns the taste of the shrimp.
Except for a mildly sweet and peppery Szechuan chicken, meat dishes have been a disappointment. Sizzling black pepper steak has an interesting flavor, with the meat coated in cracked black pepper as in steak diane and washed with a thick sweet-hot Szechuan sauce crunchy from minced red and green peppers. But its big hunks of meat are mushy, as if they have been tenderized or overpounded. General Tso's chicken, also big pieces of meat, is fried in a heavy batter, and its sticky thick glaze lacks the brassiness of the pepper steak.
Dessert is likely to be a platter of orange wedges and litchis, which is just the ending one would wish. Along with fortune cookies, of course.
Portions are generous, service is spirited, and prices are remarkably reasonable for a restaurant of such elegant pretensions. If I were writing Hunan Number One's fortune cookie, I would suggest, "A memorable dinner only ends in the dining room. It starts in the kitchen."
Fortune cookies are, after all, meant to be inscrutable. ::