2259 Bel Pre Rd., Wheaton 598-4114 Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Prices: Most dinner entrees $6 to $9. Cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa.
New Hunan is a serviceable neighborhood Chinese restaurant, attractive and cozy, with comfortable seating, soft lights, unfailingly friendly and efficient service and very reasonable prices.
There are certainly no surprises on the menu. It carries the routine list of standards, from General Tsao's chicken to moo-shi pork. But there's something of a surprise in the staffing: The manager and servers are all women and so is one of the chefs.
Although the food here is not memorable, most of it is solidly good. There's a commendable restraint with the sauces -- they're not over-thickened or over-applied, and although some are flavored a bit timidly, they're nicely balanced.
For appetizers, the spicy pickled cabbage is irresistibly zingy and the shredded chicken in sesame sauce nicely mingles the flavors of peanuts and peppers. Steamed dumplings are first class, too, with exceptionally delicate, tender wrappers and rough-ground pork fillings that have less than the usual garlic and ginger.
Fried appetizers are a lot less satisfying. The spring rolls are oily and have rather mushy fillings, and the shrimp toast, even oilier, is a total bust.
One of the best entrees in the house is the crisp duck, everything a duck should be: the meat is moist and tender, the skin crackly, the fat and saltiness minimal, the flavoring complex and subtle. To best appreciate the flavor, gnaw on those little bones.
Kung pao chicken is a good test dish for a Chinese restaurant. The sauce ought to strike a good balance between hot, sweet, salt and garlic flavors, there ought to be plenty of whole peanuts for texture contrast with the chicken, and the chicken should be carefully trimmed and cut in peanut-size cubes. Although its sauce is milder than most, New Hunan's rendition passes the kung pao test with flying colors.
Szechuan beef is a dish that gains by New Hunan's light touch with the flavorings. Many restaurants use so much hoisin sauce in their Szechuan dishes that the meat ends up icky-sweet. But here the sweetness is restrained so that you can taste the other flavors.
New Hunan's hot garlic sauce is exceptional, with a marvelous combination of hot, tart, sweet, ginger and garlic flavors. We had it with shrimp and scallops, both of which were excellent: fresh-tasting, plump, tender.
For something milder, the Hunan sauce is a good choice, subtle enough to serve as a mere backdrop for what it dresses. Hunan chicken is particularly good, in big, succulent chunks with broccoli and snow peas.
Because lightness is a strong point here, you might expect that vegetable dishes would be done well. You'd be right. The mixed vegetables are delightfully bright and lively, with a sauce that just coats them, and the Szechuan string beans, although a bit puckered, are nicely flavored.
Finally, a couple of flops. Sweet and sour fish chunks, like the shrimp toast, have been so poorly deep-fried that they're oily even inside, and we found the orange beef unacceptably tough and stringy.