At first glance, Hunan Gourmet could be just another one of those interchangeable little Chinese restaurants that dot the suburban landscape. The look of the place is unremarkable, with a plain, simple dining room meant for serious eating. The service is unobtrusive and efficient, the prices are low, and the menu is standard, surprise-free Szechuan and Hunan.
It takes eating here to make you realize that this is a remarkably good place, particularly so in light of the prices. Sure, there are some poor dishes (they seem to be concentrated among the appetizers), but there are others of uncommon refinement.
Let's get rid of the bad news first. Among the appetizers, stay away from the steamed dumplings, which have the most gluey of wrappers, and the phoenix-tail shrimp, which are hard and greasy.
The reasonably fluffy shrimp toast is a more successful fried appetizer, but nothing special.
From here on, the news is all good. A lovely appetizer, and a bargain at $1.75, are the spicy, tangy dumplings, made from thin wrappers similar to won ton, which are filled with ginger- and garlic-laced ground pork and served with a peppery peanut sauce. An entree that actually makes a terrific appetizer is crispy eggplant, a big plate of eggplant slices fried quickly in a thin batter so they're crisp outside and tender within, and served with the lightest glaze of sweet-hot sauce.
Among the entrees, the kung pao shrimp spoke well for the rest of the menu. The shrimp were sweet, firm and fresh-tasting, and the sauce struck the proper balance between hot, salty and sweet flavors. Another good sign: the shrimp were lightly coated with the sauce rather than sitting in a puddle of it.
Another barometer dish is house chicken, in which tender, well-trimmed strips of chicken and vegetables are served in a mildly hot, pungent sauce. It's simple and impeccably done.
Another solid winner is Hunan beef, a generously portioned dish that features thin-sliced beef of remarkable flavor on a bed of bright spinach, with an unthickened, lightly peppery sauce whose meaty character reinforces the flavor of the beef. Still another exemplary dish: yuling duck, the pieces cut to bite size, the meat juicy, the skin crisp, the salty-sweet-hot sauce nicely sharp, and the presentation picture pretty.
A good reminder of pasta's Chinese origins is noodles with meat sauce, in which spaghetti-like noodles are mixed with a rich beefy sauce with scallions. These are noodles as they should be, firm, nicely chewy, free of clumpiness.
Vegetarians can do very well here with yellow bird, in which thin sheets of bean curd are wrapped around strips of tofu and cabbage and served in an anise-flavored sauce. Other good choices are moo-shi vegetables and asparagus dishes, at which Hunan Gourmet excels.