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Hunan - Leave-it-to-us menu

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

China itself has countless cooking styles with the most well known being Cantonese and Szechuan whilst the Taiwanese and Malaysian have their own interpretations as well. I grew up eating Chinese-Malaysian style home cooked food and needless to say, the simple stuff is what I love (especially if it comes in big hearty portions!).

Hunan then, is something new for me. Firstly, dishes come out either in individual portions, or tapas-sized so small enough for two to share easily. While small though, it is made up for it in numbers as this is a 16 course tasting menu. And yes, there is ONLY the tasting menu where the chef brings out whatever he fancies although you can specify items you’ll rather not have.

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Actually this sounds like it’ll be quite fun.

The restaurant itself is a pretty little thing in Sloane Square and despite the posh postcode looks fairly relaxed and down-to-earth within. Elbow space was at a premium, especially as they stuffed our party of three into a table more suitable for two and the tables were placed quite close together as well (typical of London Chinese restaurants, more customers = more money!).

Prior to the actual meal starting, some kimchi, pickled cucumbers and roasted peanuts were served. The kimchi felt it could use a bit more pickling but the rest were alright and the generally tart flavour around here got our taste buds ready for more.

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Spicy chicken wonton. It may look a bit stodgy from the picture, but the dumpling skin was actually quite thin and delicate. The filling was reasonably tasty and the spiciness elevated it from an ordinary wonton. Pretty decent start.

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Octopus with bamboo. Thinly sliced octopus strips form a tender base for the chef to stack flavour onto the dish. There is a mildly spicy chilli sauce and preserved vegetables and bamboo shoots underneath the octopus. The overall dish is ok but we didn’t enjoy the bamboo so much as it had a very strong smell and acquired taste (my uncle described it as “urinal”) which was characteristic of the Taiwanese bamboo.

Spicy beef. Tender strips of beef, identical in shape and size in a thick slightly spicy sauce. This would have gone down a treat with rice.

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Water fried pork dumpling. It was to all intents and purposes for me, a decent if underwhelming gyoza.

Fried bean with garlic. I was pretty disappointed when the waitress laid this dish down on the table. I mean, its fried green beans, how good can it be? Turns out, it can be pretty damn good. Fried in the lightest tempura-like batter, the beans were incredibly airy and this would be the perfect bar snack while quaffing beer.

Jellyfish rolls. Marinated jellyfish wrapped in some cabbage, the PigPig found it had a little too much vinegar. An interesting dish to experience, having only ever seen jellyfish served with chicken or as part of the Four Seasons dish, but not brilliant.

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Steam tofu. After a bit of a lull with the previous two dishes, the food started getting good again with this steamed Japanese tofu. The seaweed wrap and minced pork added their respective tastes to the tofu without overpowering its delicate nature.

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Lamb with celery. The lamb was a tad mild-mannered here while the starchy sauce tasted too much of the celery for the PigPig.

Deep fried spinach roll. The PigPig quite liked this, but I just found it a bit meh as the deep fried pastry killed off the flavour of the inside filling. The sauce was pretty tasty though.

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Spinach with prawn.

“Oh my god, I hope it tastes as good as it looks... oh yes it does indeed”.

A springy prawn covered a filling of spinach and prawn paste, seasoned with soya sauce. Perfect.

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Steamed soup with chicken and pork. Inside the ordinary looking cup lurked a surprisingly delicious broth packed with the flavour of chicken and pork. Equally impressive however was a loosely packed meatball that crumbled upon pressure.

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Steamed duck with angelica root (dong kwai). A variant of a common straightforward dish, this was lightly seasoned so the herbal taste could come true. However, the other dishes were all so strongly flavoured that this just tasted bland.

Chicken stuffed with sticky rice. I quite liked the technique used here to deep fry the stuffed chicken and the glutinous rice filling was pretty tasty too. The only complaint I can level at it is that the rice wasn’t evenly spread throughout; a couple of pieces on one side was missing the rice.

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Steamed scallops. Reaction was a bit mixed towards this dish. For me, there were bags of flavour around as there was the soya sauce, fried garlic as well as prawn paste hidden inside the roll although it did overpower the scallop a bit. The PigPig felt it was a bit too one dimensional texturally as everything on the plate was a bit mushy.

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While unannounced, in retrospect the next few dishes are of the slightly more interesting parts of animals.

Pig’s ear. The ears themselves were an interesting contrast of textures as the soft tender meat in the middle was surrounded by a ring of crunchy cartilage. However, none of us had a particular fetish for ears and I’m also not keen on cartilage anyway. The sauce was a bit of a mystery as well. This was the only plate we left unfinished.

Frogs leg with chives. True, anything deep fried tastes batter better, but the sweet-and-sour-like sauce covering the fried legs was nice while the chives added some slight aroma. Far better than the typical barbecued chicken wing.

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Beef tripe. Thin sliced tripe covered in a strongly sour and salty spicy sauce. This was not too bad but the one we had in Leong’s Legend III was better.

Pigs intestines. We thought the red colour came from red tim cheong (red sweet sauce) which added a nice sweet layer to the fried intestines. My uncle thought it too offal-ly but the PigPig and I quite enjoyed this.

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Before the next course arrived, I was thinking that in a typical 8 course Chinese dinner, it would be customary for a rice/noodle dish to appear about now. I was also thinking that while the food has been pretty good so far (by and large), it probably didn’t really justify the price tag.

Then the waitress laid down some lobster forks and then everybody gets an excited look in their eyes. A huge bowl then arrives and in my head I’m going “That’s a heck of a lot of lobster!!”. We then peer into the bowl to find... oh crap, its crab. Don’t get me wrong, we love to eat crab. But it’s usually only me eating the crab because the PigPig is too lazy to pick at the meat.

Crab noodle soup. The crab (brown crab from Cornwall) was deep fried to seal in the juices prior to being dunked in the soup and the meat itself was pretty sweet. Annoyingly however, they didn’t give us the crab-cracker-thingy. Meanwhile, the PigPig loved the sour-ish soup although we all agreed the noodles were a bit lacklustre and stodgy.

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Red bean pancake with almond jelly. For dessert, we had an over-fried red bean pancake which was too hard and chewy to enjoy along with some decent almond jelly. Made us wish we just had oranges.

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Altogether, the bill came up to £50 each for a 16 course tasting menu and tap water. Our friend who had eaten here before said he left feeling very full, but we left feeling we could have a little bit more for dessert (which we did by going to Dri Dri for ice cream and had 10 scoops).

Food – 6.7
Service – 5.0
Atmosphere – 4.0
Value – 5.0

According to our waitress, the chef here is Taiwanese and the food is actually more Taiwanese style. She then continues by saying that this is actually just one of a worldwide chain although the website attributes the name to the chef’s homeland. Nevertheless, we found the food pretty good and usually quite strong flavoured. Several of the dishes had some sliced lettuce underneath the main item which turned out quite useful to help clean out the mouth.

Since the tables were placed quite close together, we could also spy on other diners fare and we noticed they had some things we didn’t and vice versa. We didn’t see other people eating offal nor the crab.

Best bit: toss up between the prawn and the soup, both were pretty awesome but the green bean tempura is also worthy of mention.
Worst bit: the perception that Chinese desserts are poor is well deserved here, genuinely abysmal.

51 Pimlico Road,
Tel: +44(020) 7730 5712
Official website

Hunan on Urbanspoon

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