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Hunan

51 Pimlico Road, London, England, SW1W 8NE, United Kingdom

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Hunan opened in Belgravia way back in 1982, run by Mr Y.S. Peng and his son Michael. Mr Peng was actually born in Taiwan but the restaurant is named after Hunan, a mountainous province in southern central China noted for its spicy flavours and use of vinegar. This is one of the eight main cuisines of China (the others are Cantonese, Sichuan, Shandong, Fujian, Anhui, Jiansgu and Zhejiang). In practice the dishes that emerge from the kitchen draw on influences from Taiwan and Sichuan as well as Hunan. Hunanese cuisine has similarity to Sichuanese but has less variation and subtlety according to a Chinese friend; it is a more rustic cuisine than Sichuanese.

In an era well before tasting menus became common in London, Hunan has always served whatever Mr Peng fancied serving that day, a lengthy sequence of small dishes. These were priced at £48.50 at lunch, or £69.80 in the evening.. Mr Peng had a day off today and the chef was a Mr Lee. 

The wine list had around 150 labels and ranged in price from £24 to £2,490, with a median price of £79. The list is unusually interesting, with some carefully chosen growers and some real rarities like the Clos Rougeard Le Bourg 2007 at £699 for a wine with a current market value of £466 , as well as some bottles with good age, such as the Vina Tondonia Gran Reserva 1995 at £200 compared to its retail price of £126. Sample labels included Blaufrankisch Moric Rolan Velich 2016 at £38 for a bottle that you can find in the high street for £19, the lovely Rioja Alta 904 2007 at £79 compared to its retail price of £49, and the gorgeous Kistler Vine Hill 2014 at £185 for a bottle that will set you back £115 in a shop if you could actually find it.  Those with the means to splurge could enjoy Domaine Dujac Charmes Chambertin 2000 at £600 compared to its retail price of £448 or Domaine Georges Noellat Grand-Echezaux 2014 at £900 compared to its current market value of £490. Although the average markup to retail price works out at around 1.9, which itself is way below the London norm, there are several bottles only a bit more than their shop price, so this is very much a list for serious wine lovers. It features top class growers at extremely fair prices. With Bonhams now closed, Hunan may have the best priced wine list in London, even including Noble Rot.

The meal began with a soup of minced pork with chicken stock, water chestnuts and mushrooms that was almost supernaturally hot (in temperature, not spice).  I left it for a couple of courses and it was still barely drinkable; though once I eventually got there it had quite pleasant flavour. I reckon the remnants would still be hot tomorrow (13/20).

Minced pork with spices was wrapped in a lettuce leaf and was very pleasant, the spices lifting the flavour of the meat (13/20). Less good was chillied Irish rib eye beef that was troublingly chewy (barely 11/20). Much better were deep fried green beans in tempura style with some spices. The batter was light and the spicing nicely judged (14/20). Steamed prawns with spinach were sadly over-cooked (10/20). 

Pork belly bao was nice enough, though Hoppers won't be trembling in their boots at the thought of the competition (12/20). Fried spinach roll was enjoyably spicy (13/20), as was Scottish lamb with chillies, though again the meat was cooked too long and had a distinctly grey pallor (10/20). Frogs legs were pleasant enough, inevitably reminiscent of chicken in flavour, with the spices the main flavour coming through (12/20).

Scallops were very average and I suspect were frozen, entirely lacking in natural sweetness. They were slightly overcooked (just about 11/20). This was followed by pleasant bean curd with Chinese mushroom (12/20) and then spicy cuttlefish with aubergine, which avoided chewiness though was a tad greasy (12/20). Lobster noodles were a touch overcooked but still perfectly enjoyable. The lobster again could have cooked a little less but it had not reached the chewy stage (13/20). Dessert was toffee apple and was pleasant enough (12/20). Coffee was from a Nespresso machine.

Service was fine. The bill came to £169 a head, but that involved multiple excursions into the middle reaches of the wine list. If you shared a modest bottle of wine at dinner then a more typical cost per person might be around £100. Overall this meal at Hunan was rather as I remember, though somewhat improved in standard. One issue is that a remarkable number of dishes appeared to feature the same sauce, so the dishes had a monotonous quality as they rolled out. The best dish was the tempura of vegetables, but to balance this there were some really poor plates, such as the beef and lamb. Overall the food was just about acceptable, but well below the standard of somewhere like Royal China. The wine list is of course a major compensation and perhaps accounts for the appeal of Hunan to a loyal group of diners. I promised in my previous review that I would come here again after another decade and that interval feels about right.

Further reviews: 01st Apr 2008

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