The no-menu family affair..
Hunan is a family run Chinese restaurant which has occupied a little corner in Chelsea/Pimlico for decades. Chef Peng (the daddy) leads the kitchen and Michael (the son) looks after the FOH and the wine list. Despite its name, Hunan does not serve Hunanese Chinese cuisine but is a purveyor of unique and (at times) inventive Taiwanese cooking. And like eating in a family setting, you have no choice but to eat what the “family” makes. This “no menu” – composed of 16 odd dishes adequately portioned for the whole table to try – is particularly great for those who eat a lot (me) as you (I) can feel free to ask for more within a set price of roughly £30 per person for lunch and £40 (ish) for dinner. The ambiance is that of an elegant neighbourhood restaurant – bustling, relaxed and with better service than your preconception of a Chinese restaurant.
A marathon meal
At Hunan, there are three things you should bear in mind. First, as I have been a solo diner at Hunan a few times, I strongly advise you find a few lovable (boy)friend(s) to share the meal with. This is simply because a 16-or-more-course meal will make you feel like it has been going on and on and on and on and on and on…just like a marathon of food. Good food. You should also go with an empty stomach (my no.2 point). Last, a long menu can fall into repetitions. Hunan can suffer from that, yet depending on the day and what dishes they decide to give you. Apart from notifying the FOH of your allergies, you may also inform them of your likes and dislikes – spicy, fishy, offal-y, duck-y or lobster-y. They usually do their best to accommodate your needs.
And this is how it went.
Chicken Lettuce Wrap was pleasant and not exaggeratedly seasoned. The coarsely minced chicken was sauteed with chopped carrots, onions, spring onions and garlic. Full of bites, with an umami salty-ness from the soy sauce and a refreshing touch from iceberg lettuce. Pig’s Ears were stuffed with pork paste and served with soy dressing. I liked the crunchy contrast between the soft-bone-like ears and the fine paste. Seaweed Wrapped Tofu was dim-sum-like and served braised in starchy chilli sauce. There was a little indication of heat. The same could be said for fish braised with chilli, ginger and pickled mustard leaves, which stood out for its big tang. Steamed prawn creatively formed a case for this flavoursome spinach “dumpling”. The dish was toppled with a kind of ginger, soy and spring onion sauce. The prawn was nicely cooked and quite springy. Tripe braised in chilli oil was h-a-w-t. The tripe retained some musty taste but soaked up the fragrant and fiery oil + soy sauce concoction very well. Scallops and Cucumber was an okay dish but I found the taste of the scallops washed away by the watery cucumber slices and the potent soy-based sauce. The next was what I believed to be Pumpkin Balls in Chilli Sauce. Despite the fact that I enjoyed it, I could experience only the crispy bean curd skin and the chilli sauce. Frog Legs was a stir fry dish with a delicious entourage of minced chicken, chives and chilli oil. A success. The firm frog meat fell of the bone very nicely; the chive added perfume and crunchy stringy-ness. A success of one did lead to my feeling nonchalant for another – tender beef stripes stir fried with re-hydrated chilli and spring onions. Correctly prepared. The beef tasted like beef (which I find very rare in most Chinese restaurants). It didn’t have as much a wow factor. Beef Shin with Pancake Roll (served cold) was by far a major disappointment as it arrived way too cold. I would describe my experience as eating a stump of hardened flour with chilled hoisin sauce. That said, Crispy Pork Intestines were a revelation. The intestines were expertly marinated and roasted for a perfect crust. They tasted very much like char siu but with a clever enhancement of gummy texture vis-a-vis crispy-ness. It worked brilliantly with a controlled drizzling of sweet hoisin. Crispy Cuttlefish was served with a sweet and (very) spicy chilli syrup (made from fresh and dried chilli). Explosive and crusty. Another success. The chilli aftertaste was extinguished by Stir Fried Lamb with Baby Chinese Celery. The “celery” was very close to asparagus in taste, texture and juicy-ness. The meal concluded with generically good banana fritters with vanilla ice cream. There were, certainly, ups and downs but for the most part of this meal and many others I find Hunan relatively enjoyable. I also like the fact that the food at Hunan barely oozed MSG.
51 Pimlico Road
Tel. 020 7730 5712