Opened in Pimlico in 1982, Hunan is the sort of place that’s been around since shell suits and shoulder pads but most people know little about it.
Close to the ever glamorous Sloane Square and the interior design boutiques stands Hunan’s rather beige store front. As my friend and I entered, it was evident that the inside was just as small as the outside led you to believe. Some may say sardined; I’d say cosy.
Nervously we sat down at our table and awaited further information. Here’s the thing, there is no menu at Hunan. Instead “a rapid succession of tapas sized portions promise a unique and memorable meal” – so says the website.
For someone who usually scrutinises a menu at least 48 hours before a meal, with option A, B and C firmly noted in my back pocket, this was the gastronomic equivalent of playing Russian roulette with the safety catch off.
Having got the nitty-gritty dietary details of what we don’t/can’t/mustn’t eat, and chosen the most versatile wine I could think of – Gavi di Gavi Piedmont – we set off on a 16 dish extravaganza.
From the restaurant’s name you’d be forgiven for assuming these dishes hail from the Hunan province of China, but you’d be wrong. The name is actually a tribute to the birthplace of Chef Peng’s mentor and although there are Hunanese elements, the menu is mainly influenced by the food of Taiwan.
Despite the ample succession of dishes, we neither felt rushed nor belly-achingly full. A difficult accomplishment to pull off but with the efforts of the friendly Maître D’, Michael, both the pace of food and the portion sizes were just right.
Courses were also brought out in combinations that complemented all of our dietary requirements, so that bar one occasion at the beginning, neither of us sat idle whilst watching the other eat – that’s skill indeed.
The food itself was authentic, rustic and subtle in its flavours. It was good at best but lacked the panache I was expecting, given the promise of the menu-less concept. I would have liked to have seen a good kick of spice, punchier flavours and dishes that, as the website stated, made for a ‘memorable meal’.
There were certainly a few that showed promise, such as the veg/chicken lettuce wraps (although quite how to eat them without getting the filling down your front was indeed a challenge).
There were also, thankfully, a few highlights that stood out: Tilapia fish that was beautifully accompanied with miso and what I believed to be a ginger and honey marinade. The fish was succulent and melted in the mouth.
A dish of steamed scallops was also cooked to perfection. My guest also loved the Beef pancake roll, with its fiery sauce adding a welcome intensity. The casing of the beef was nicely crisp on the outside and not overcooked inside, providing an enjoyable buttery texture.
With such promise, we were well on our way to a great evening but there were a few let downs along the way too. So that for every high, you were pulled straight back down. A seabass dish with silky tofu was bland in its appearance and flavour, with its skin peeling off. If fish is going to be pan seared it must have crispy skin in my book.
This was followed by stir fried lamb with earwood mushroom: the lamb was overcooked, the sauce watery and the earwood mushrooms didn’t add to it at all.
We managed to finish the night on a sweet note with a quaint little dish of toffee apples and bananas in crispy sesame seed batter, served with vanilla pod ice cream. Sweet, sticky and crunchy. Just the right combination to round off the night.
Hunan is indeed a mixed bag but overall it maintains a neighbourhood charm that makes you smile through the curiosity.
At the end of a night of mild theatre with the anticipation of what’s coming next and the flustered sometimes erratic service, we had certainly experienced a unique concept but it’s got a little way further to go to make it a wholly memorable meal.
This is a guest post by Mittal Shah. Mital describes herself as two parts amateur foodie and one part oenophile, with a dash of style for good measure. Having taken a career break from the busy world of Financial PR, where she first made her way through London’s restaurant and bar scene, she now juggles between her food & lifestyle blog, mitziesbubble and her rather mischievous first born.
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