Thursday, 27 August 2009

Review: Hunan (Chinese), London

Guess the dish........

I thought I’d slip in a London restaurant review inbetween my posts on China although Hunan is a Chinese restaurant. It’s a bit posh as you might expect with a Pimlico Road address and being 2 minutes from Sloane Square tube.

Famously (or infamously), there is no menu here and you leave yourself at the mercy of the chef although you are given a chance to state your dislikes. Although we knew there’d be dishes we might not like, we said ‘bring it on’ albeit politely, we were in Belgravia after all.

The lack of menu is compensated by a weighty wine list. We ordered a 2008 Schloss Gobelsburg Gruner Veltliner (£29) which swiftly arrived with some nibbles of nuts, kimchi and cucumber. I’m no wine expert but I thought it complemented the food very well.

Not long after, the first of what turned out to be 16 courses arrived. Everybody loved the minced pork & ginger soup served in a bamboo mini-keg and the lettuce wrap with minced chicken was also well received if a tad generic.

The next course was described as water-cooked pork dumpling (shui jian bao). With it‘s crispy bottom and vinegar dip, it reminded me a bit of the sheng jian bao I had in Shanghai although these dumplings were soupless.
I’m sure I’d have liked these more if I hadn’t just returned from China but I couldn’t help comparing them to the dumplings in Shanghai. Although I was a tad disappointed, no one else was.

A quick succession of dishes then arrived, salmon rolls, crispy beans with chilli, jellyfish rolls, pig’s ears & pig’s tongue and king prawn & minced pork rolls. Of these dishes, the crispy beans were the star turn with its moreish light tempura batter. The pig’s ear didn’t have many fans although the accompanying pig’s tongue was wolfed down.

My personal favourite was served next, spicy frogs legs, which reminded me of a similar dish I once had in a Hunanese restaurant in Beijing. The legs had a light crispy coating and were served with bamboo shoots, chilli and spring onion.
The next dish was easily the worse of the evening. The chilli beef was like a refugee from a bad take away, tough chewy beef served in a gloopy sauce.

After the beef nightmare, things picked up with the steamed duck with ginger and spinach rolls. Then some more offal in the form of Chinese 'haggis', well that’s what the waiter called it after we sent him back to find out.

We weren’t sure what this dish consisted of but we weren’t fans of the texture. The chilli sauce it was served with was also too potent overpowering the taste of the dish. None of us really liked it although it was more to do with personal taste rather than the dish being a complete nightmare like the beef.

It was at this point (13 courses in) that we asked to stop. However, we were told there would be two more courses. The fried baby squid was spoiled a bit by its sauce but I have no complaints about the excellent steamed scallops served on top of cucumber filled with minced pork and topped with garlic.
So after 15 rounds, we said ‘no mas’ and asked about dessert. I’m not sure if we were allowed to choose but we only asked for the toffee apple with ice cream and toffee banana with ice cream with the emphasis on ice cream. Anyway the one dessert we didn’t want was brought out on the basis it was more ‘Chinese’. It undoubtedly was but we did say we didn’t want it. The rogue dessert was sent back and our order was wheeled out but without the ice cream. If I gave marks out of ten, I’d deduct a point for this slightly farcical end to our meal.

The only other (minor) grumble was the inadequate description of the dishes in English or Chinese. If you’re serving what is essentially a tasting menu, it’d be nice to have an description of each dish and in some cases how best to eat it. It’d also have been good to be given more warning as to when we might want to stop.

Dinner for four cost £240 including two bottles of wine and 12.5% service. If you describe it as a Chinese meal then it seems pricey but if you think of it as a tasting menu in a Belgravia restaurant, it seems reasonable.

Lastly, many thanks to my dining companions. It was my first grown-up London restaurant review and I hope the photography, incessant questioning and note making weren’t too intrusive.

Verdict: I enjoyed the element of surprise at Hunan but it isn't somewhere you'd return to regularly unless you had deep pockets. Having said that it's worth going for a special occasion or a smart business dinner.

Other Stuff: The Fox & Hounds is a great pub to meet in before or after the meal as is the Ebury Wine Bar if you prefer wine !

Hunan on Urbanspoon


  1. Interesting that you also noticed the lack of descriptions for each dish. This really frustrated me! Sorry to see your gloopy dish too. We were too full for pudding luckily. Generally I really liked Hunan but some dishes were far better than others! I look forward to going back though...

  2. To be honest, I was half expecting the lack of descriptions from your review. I just never imagined that I'd have to send the waiter back for the most cursory of descriptions.

    The consistency of food in Chinese restaurants in the UK can be patchy even in classy places like Hunan. I'm still staggered that the same kitchen that sent out the frogs legs followed it up with that gloopy beef dish !

  3. As Mr Noodles' occasional wine adviser, I must commend Hunan for featuring Austrian wine - very underrated here and virtually everywhere except Austria! It was an excellent accompaniment to an excellent dinner. I didn't think the beef was that bad! But certainly below par.

  4. Nigel - I always value your wine advice and the Gruner Veltliner was an excellent choice. As the blog develops, I hope to write more about wine although I may need to develop my 'wine vocab' ! As you know, I can be a right SOB when eating out and there is no doubt that the beef suffered from my high expectations in general and of Hunan in particular.

  5. Hunan restaurant was one of the first Chinese restaurants I went to when I came to the UK in 1996. Its promising to hear that over the years, it has still kept its core basis of a menuless establishment settled on the owner's suggestive dishes. It has been a decade since I went back as I no longer live in Central London and are more settled in North West London or up north when at uni. I really need to go back as I remember vividly the delicious tempura fried beans and still persist on my mother to cook it for me whenever I am back in London. However, there is one dish I also remember which didn't seem to have been served to you, it was a soup dish in individualised claypots with shaved trufflelike seafood which I can no longer remember. It had a distinctive vinegary and peppery taste alongside the ever present fishy stock taste, garnished with garlic shoots.

    On a side note, love reading your blog and noticed Pearl Liang is a great favourite of yours. On a purely trivial matter, did you know the head chef and owner of Pearl Liang were both at the Mandarin Kitchen in Bayswater during its heyday. Also noticed you like spicier food and would recommend you to the Sichuan Restaurant in Greenwich (search on google should bring it up easily) and the Hunan restaurant in Golders Green (used to be on the top floor of Oriental Kitchen).

    And again, great blog.

  6. charliejiang - welcome! Thanks for the kind words. Not been back to Hunan since this review - that's the thing with blogging - you end up going to loads of places just the once! I did hear about the link between Pearl Liang and Mandarin Kitchen, and both the tips you mention are on my list. A very long list...