Price range: Main courses range from $4.95 for lemon chicken to $8.95 for Hunan whole crisp fish.
Hours: Weekdays, 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., weekends, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Atmosphere: Spacious, gracious Oriental restaurant, but informal enough to take kids.
Credit Cards: American Express, Master Charge, Visa.
Special Facilities: High chairs and boosters available.
The long-hearalded, opening of the Hunan on Capitol Hill this winter has added still another top quality establishment to a mini-restaurant row on the Senate side of the Hill. Just around the corner from the Hunan are the American Cafe, the Brasserie, and the Man in the Green Hat. Just down the street is the venerable old Monocle.
The Hunan, at 2nd and D streets NE occupies the long-vacated premises of Club II. Although the layout is basically the same, the decor has changed considerably. The four spacious rooms, all on different levels, are swathed in beige grasscloth and hung with Chinese paintings. The lampshades on the overhead lights are formed by fans, and fresh chrysnthemums adorn many tables. The overall ambience: subdued Oriental.
The cuisine of Hunan province is supposed to combine the hot spiciness of the cooking of its neighbor to the west -- Szechwan -- with the richness of the Shanghai cuisine that dominates the area to the east. Based on prior meals in Chinese restaurants that left my mouth burning but crying for more, I would say that the food at the Hunan on Capitol Hill is generally a bit too subdued. For families with kids, however, this may be a plus.
To give us time to study the four-page menu, we ordered the pupu tray for two. Pupu means hor d'oeuvers, but the name evoked lots of giggles from our 3-year-old and 6-year-old daughters. The dish turned out to be a big hit with them, especially since it came with its own miniature hibachi. The kids cooked their own skewered pork on the hibachi and ate that plus egg rolls and spareribs, leaving only the batter-fried shrimp to their parents.
The menu pulled in all directions. My husband and I wanted to try the hot and sour soup (95 cents) but decided to sacrifice it since the children wouldn't like it. The tea-smoked duck and the Hunan whole crisp fish -- both house specialities -- also tempted us. After much debate, we settled on beef' broccoli ($5.45), a Cantonese favorite of the children, sea scallops in hot, spicy garlic sauce ($7.45), hsiang tang lamb ($7.95), and kung pao beef ($7.95). The last three dishes were printed in red on the menu, a warning that they were supposed to be hot and spicy.
As far as piquancy is concerned, only the scallop dish lived up the the expectations -- sending us for frequent gulps of beer. Hot peppers, fresh ginger and garlic are mainstays of Hunanese cooking and in this dish all three flavors were discernible separately, playing harmoniously with each other -- no mean feat in cooking. The scallops also were quite fresh and cooked just long enough.
The kids loved the beef broccoli and also found the other meat dishes mild enough for their palates. Since we adults were expecting them to be spicy -- as advertised -- we were mildily disappointed. The kung pao beef, sauted with scallions and peanuts, was delicious -- but not spicy.
The lamb, cooked until it was nice and tender, was also tasty but not piquant. The meal came with ample steamed rice and endless pots of tea.
Braving the waiter's polite but obvious skepticism, we asked for chopsticks all around but wisely kept some forks and spoons -- which proved useful when our 3-year-old gave up. We finished the lamb and the scallops and had the waiter combine the leftover beef dishes, which we reheated for lunch the following day.
Fortune cookies came with the check, which told us we were destined to pay $40.23 for our meal, which included four beers and one coke, split two ways.
Next time we go to the Hunan on Capitol Hill -- and there will be a next time -- we will shave expenses by ordring only three main dishes. Or, better still, by taking another family with us so we can try more new dishes. And the scallops will definitely be ordered again.