If you had to design a neighborhood Chinese restaurant from scratch, you couldn't do much better than the Great Hunan Village. It has all the virtues: first-rate food, rock-bottom prices, generous portions, a lovely environment and friendly, efficient service.
And it's just across the road from another restaurant we've found unusually good in the past, the Maharaja.
The dining room at Great Hunan Village is simple, yet pretty, and it's free of the dissonant, clattery quality of so many Chinese restaurants. Colors, lighting and acoustics are all pleasantly soft, and the widely spaced tables add to the low-key, relaxed aura -- good for the digestion.
For starters, spring rolls are flawless, with paper-thin, crackly wrappers and a light filling. Steamed dumplings are fine, too, the dough chewy yet tender, the ground pork filling gentle on the garlic and ginger.
Rumaki -- fresh chicken livers wrapped in bacon, topped with a slice of water chestnut, coated with batter and deep fried -- provide some delightful flavor-texture contrasts.
But the shrimp toast, with too much bread and not enough shrimp, was a letdown.
The poultry is a shining light here. Yu ling duck, for example, is as good a rendition as we've ever had, the meat wonderfully succulent and flavorful, the skin irresistibly crisp, the fat a bare minimum. The salty, vinegar-laced sauce was a perfect foil for the duck.
Based on that happy experience, we'd guess that the Peking and crispy varieties of duck are excellent, too.
For something a little different in the poultry department, there's also a terrific little cornish hen with a lovely, crisp skin and subtle flavoring that permeates the whole bird. At $6, this is one of the more obvious bargains in this bargain of a restaurant.
The biggest problem with most Chinese restaurants lies in the sauces. Too often they're thick with cornstarch, flavored without subtlety, and depressingly over-applied. No such problems here. Kung pao dishes, for example, have the requisite balance of salt, sweet and hot flavors, and, in the kung pao chicken, there are enough whole peanuts to give just the right crunch to the whole affair. The Szechuan sauce, a bit sweet, is neither as hot nor as garlicky as most, and it doesn't suffer from the restraint. It's particularly good with the pork. Hunan sauce is likewise mild, and goes very well with the excellent lamb. The only sauce letdown is the sha cha variety, which we found unpleasantly grainy.
The sweet, plump shrimp and scallops are very good, too. The simplest way to have them is in seafood delight, with lively vegetables in a light, scarcely thickened white sauce.
Or, for more excitement, in sizzling rice with seafood or sizzling rice with shrimp, mixed at tableside in a glorious cloud of steam.
Don't overlook the noodles, either. Pan-fried noodles, a mammoth portion at $7.50, are crisp at the bottom, nicely chewy above, and topped with good beef, chicken, shrimp and vegetables in a mild brown sauce. It's a simple, satisfying dish in a simple, satisfying restaurant.