Hunan Kitchen of Grand Sichuan may not be for everyone, but if you’re not put off by intense spiciness, offal on the menu, an abundance of oil, or picking meat or fish off the bone, the food here is fantastic. Consider yourself warned.
Hunan Kitchen serves authentic Hunan cuisine, one of the eight major regional cuisines of China. Though it’s at least as hot and spicy as Sichuan, the flavors differ in that its chilies pack a wallop without the numbing effect found in Sichuan cuisine spiced with Sichuan peppercorns. There are enough mild dishes to provide for your spice-averse friends if you insist on dragging them along, but to really appreciate this eatery, you should be prepared to enjoy the heat.
The walls of this small modern space are mostly unadorned save a few strategically hung shoulder bags flaunting a silk-screened image of Chairman Mao, a nod to Hunan being the former Chinese leader’s birthplace. No dragons. No calligraphy. No brush paintings. Just the shoulder bags and a few red lanterns set the tone. Concern for aesthetics is lavished on the food here, not the environment.
Within Hunan cuisine, there are various styles reflective of the lakes, rivers, and fertile agricultural land. All seem to be represented here, and more. You can sample from “Famous Hunan Dishes,” “Hunan Country Style Dishes,” “Hunan Old Style Dishes,” “Hunan Steamed Dishes,” and several other categories without the word “Hunan” in them, but still offering foods favored there.
We started with a few appetizers not only associated with Hunan. Hot and sour soup was of average spiciness, but had an intensely meaty broth studded with crunchy bits of long bean, along with the usual tofu and pork. Dan dan noodles, usually associated with Sichuan cooking, were excellent, but no particular Hunanese difference was noticeable. Pickled cabbage, Hunan style, a cold appetizer, was Chinese sauerkraut with chili peppers, a good grease cutter.
Dong An Chicken is one of Hunan’s signature dishes. It is a spicy stir-fry of chicken with sweet red pepper and long bean that is loaded with ginger, garlic and, of course, chilies.
Another signature dish of the region, Steamed Spare Rib with Bamboo Shoot, was far from what we envisioned. It is served in a section of a bamboo log that looks like a tiki glass turned on its side. The spareribs are cut into short sections, and steamed for what must be an eternity, because the bones become so soft that they dissolve in your mouth. The result is a spicy, oily stew that has little in common with what we think of when we think “steamed.”
The spare rib dish we preferred was Garlic and Cumin Pork Ribs. The decoratively presented ribs were covered with a mixture of garlic, cumin, chilies and other spices, and roasted to the nth degree crunchiness. It deviates as far in the other direction from our normal take on spare ribs as the former preparation, but we preferred the crunchy to the stewy.
Duck is popular in Hunan. You can order it barbecued, smoked, or in casserole, or opt only for the head or the tongue. The casserole is served in a metal pan over a sterno warmer. The flavors emphasize star anise along with garlic and chilies. We give this high marks for its robust flavor, but must caution that the duck bones are hacked up, and it requires effort to remove the meat from the bones, especially with chopsticks.
In contrast, the smoked duck is both aromatic and easy to attack. It has a barbecue flavor which is augmented by hoisin sauce for dipping. The duck itself is without sauce or veggies, so it would be wise to order some to accompany it. Sauteed pea shoots with garlic make a nice un-spicy partner.
During our first visit, the restaurant was overrun with New York Times readers ordering the two recommended dishes listed in Sam Sifton’s year-end roundup of New York’s 10 best new restaurants: Lamb with Cumin Flavor and BBQ Fish, Hunan style. We loved the former, but have reservations about the latter.
The lamb embodied everything that is wonderful about the bold Hunan culinary sensibility: heavy doses of chilies, garlic, cumin and star anise. We can see why it was such a hit. We are not so sure about the fish. Had BBQ not been in the name, we wouldn’t have guessed a connection. A whole tilapia, admittedly not a favorite of ours, is served in a pan on a butane burner, buried is a mélange of root vegetables and sauce. The server will “serve” the fish, which means vaguely breaking it up, skin bones and all, in the pan. You are then left to extricate portions of fish and vegetables, trying to leave behind as much of the debris as possible. We were not terribly successful at it, and trying to avoid the bones absorbed as much of our attention as the bold flavor of the sauce. Something boneless in there would have been delicious.
Hunan Kitchen of Grand Sichuan is brilliant at what it does. That is, prepare the tastes of Hunan uncompromisingly for diners that appreciate authenticity. If you find hot sauces and exotic dishes enticing, this restaurant will more than satisfy your cravings.
Hunan Kitchen of Grand Sichuan
42-47 Main Street (Franklin Avenue)
Price Range: Sandwiches: Appetizers: $3.95—8.95 Mains: $9.95—22.95 (most big enough to share).
Cuisine: Hunan style Chinese
Setting: Small, minimally decorated modern.
Service: Fast, friendly, limited English.
Hours: 11 am to 2 am seven days
Alcohol: Tsingtao beer
Children: Welcome, not good for picky eaters.
Credit cards: Visa/Master
Noise level: Acceptable
©2012 Community Newspaper Group
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