13725 Jefferson Davis Hwy., Woodbridge 643-2214 or (703) 490-3456 Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday; noon to 11 p.m. Saturday; noon to 10 p.m. Sunday. Prices: Appetizers and soups, $1.95 to $4.25; entrees, $4.95 to $16.95. Cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express. Separate nonsmoking section.
Optimism abounds in Prince William County where new office buildings, shops and restaurants are sprouting up everywhere. In spite of the prospects for good times in these parts, the owners of Mr. Hunan are taking no chances: They have placed two Chinese lion statues, symbols of good luck and protection, in front of their two-month-old restaurant.
I was told that the "Mr." in Mr. Hunan, as was much of the menu, was inspired by Mr. K's in the District, which is where the chef at Mr. Hunan last worked. Regardless of the inspiration, this is not an upscale, plush city establishment transplanted to Woodbridge.
At Mr. Hunan the decor tends to be ordinary except for a few embellishments -- crystal chandeliers, etched glass panels and gold-rimmed dishes with the restaurant's name.
The tables, arranged in two dining areas on either side of the center entryway, have rose-colored table covers, maroon napkins, and vases sprouting anthuriums. I found the booths to be slightly cramped, but other conditions caused more discomfort. On one occasion we moved twice, first to avoid cigarette smoke that seemed to move horizontally despite a high ceiling, and a second time to avoid a vent producing a full blast of heat.
For Chinese restaurant regulars, the moderately priced menu covers familiar territory with good and not-so-good results.
A beautifully carved radish rose graces the appetizer assortment platter but cannot hide the blandness of the spring roll, fried scallop, fried won ton and shrimp toast. A steamed pork dumpling was the best of the lot. More satisfying is the spicy chicken curl for two in which a small bit of chicken, tofu, red and green peppers and pine nuts are served in an iceberg lettuce cup. In other versions I've had, the filling is rolled in supple leaves of lettuce and eaten with the fingers, but this version was so juicy and the lettuce so rigid that I treated it like soup and used a spoon. The hot and sour soup was vinegary but without the balance of a strong broth. Better was the delicate crown pork soup with strands of pickled cabbage that brightened the taste, although the broth could have been more flavorful.
It might be better to skip the soups and appetizers and start with the tasty and elegantly presented Peking duck ($16.95). The duck is carved in the kitchen, sliced and arranged in a neat mound covered with the strips of its reddish skin. Next to the succulent meat on the large white platter are six expertly fashioned pancakes and a dish of plum sauce. The accompanying scallions are served here in short lengths attractively fringed at the ends instead of shredded. While pretty, when you roll one up in a pancake, all the onion flavor is concentrated in one spot.
The crispy prawns are another good bet. Although neither crispy nor jumbo, they are large and numerous for $10.95. A light sauce gently complements the delicate flavor of the shrimp while shards of ginger and scallions add zest. On the other hand, a Hunan-style shrimp dish was lively enough, but the shrimp were not as consistently sweet.
Two chicken dishes were acceptable but uninspired. The chicken with macadamia nuts was enhanced by a light brown sauce, but the nuts, celery chunks and water chestnuts provided too much crunch and not enough variety for my taste. The spicy chicken anisette had a gummy coating and no discernible anise flavor. Even less successful, the Mongolian beef was overwhelmed by the pervasive canned flavor of the bamboo shoots.
The service staff is fairly attentive and a few pleasant touches include a small glass of sherbet served after the appetizer course, and hot perfumed towels after the meal. The desserts are limited to canned fruit, ice cream and fried bananas.
The takeout menu provides the option of ordering medium or full-sized portions of most entrees.
The menu is large and varied, and based on recent samplings the best bets are a very good Peking duck and the shrimp dishes.