Hunan. You won’t go hungry.
Why is your wearable fitness device saying LOSE? asks my back doctor. This is the digital device I wear on my wrist which, helpfully, tells me how much I’ve fallen short of my daily goal of ten thousand steps. I am confused by his comment as my wearable has never before issued a command. I work out that he is looking at it upside down and what it is displaying is the sorry evidence that I have only taken 3507 steps. And it is 5 PM. LOSE. All it’s missing is an R.
Attacked by my own car the previous evening, my muscles had gone into spasm and it felt as if I’d been given a karate chop in the back when I bent over to pick something up the next morning. To explain: I have a car with a fancy automatic closing boot, one which is meant to stop if anything or indeed anyone blocks its progress, only it didn’t and anyone walking down my street at the relevant time would have been entertained by the sight of my backside and legs hanging out of the back end of the car whilst I desperately tried to free myself. I cannot say it was my most elegant moment.
Not entirely sure how to explain it to the doctor, I go for the unglazed truth. Your spine is compromised at every level, he says breezily, so any jolting or jarring is going to leave you in some sort of pain. Yes, thanks for that. And after quizzing me for the best restaurants to take his two girlfriends (not together, mind; I’d have given entirely different recommendations) he confirms that it is nothing serious and that I can go out to eat.
I am particularly relieved at the not serious diagnosis, not so much worried about missing the food, having been before, but I have arranged to meet with the Law Professor, the Employment Barrister and the In-house Lawyer AKA Legal Bizzle. I believe that this qualifies as a legal Tweat-up, all of us having met through the medium of Twitter.
Founded in 1982, Hunan is approaching the status of an institution. It has its own cookbook, which, amazingly, I do not yet have. And given the name, you would be forgiven for thinking that the cuisine is Hunanese but you’d be wrong. Chef Peng, the proprietor, hails from Taiwan and whilst there are a few slightly unusual dishes, the food is not all that very different from what you might be served in any number of Cantonese and Szechuan restaurants, save that here it’s served tapas-style and at the menu is chosen by the chef.
You may recall how much I love surprises from earlier experiments in relinquishing menu choice to the restaurant. Yes, Grain Store, I’m looking at you. Too much of a control freak, the idea of somebody else actually choosing my food goes against all reason, but here, it is the thing and you must do it.
Attuned to the sensibilities of their audience, they do ask whether we are happy to eat frog’s legs (no) or tongue (again no ) and how hot and spicy we want the food. We have a little lawyerly debate about how that might be measured and we end up at medium-spicy.
I will not go through every dish because we both have a life, but suffice it to say that there was an elegant sufficiency. We start with a wonderfully delicate broth, a loose almost-dumpling of minced chicken floating on top. It is served with a minced chicken lettuce wrap, which I obviously eat with my fingers and I look up to notice that my table companions are all delicately picking at it with their chopsticks, with varying degrees of success. I suggest shoving it into one’s face like a spring roll, which they all then do.
One of the slightly challenging aspects of our meal is trying to understand what each dish actually is. Even after repetition, we cannot always understand what we are being served. If we are lucky, we can decipher a key word, identifying the main ingredient. More often than not the entire description is unintelligible and indeed I wonder what pass-tickers might be until I realise that they are pot-stickers, a type of steamed dumpling. I have no idea what they are filled with. It is meat, that much I will give you.
We are all a little sceptical about the Irish mussels with black bean sauce and chilli , but they are a revelation, giving a rich umami hit of tastiness. Also notable are the green beans, salt and pepper style, fried in a tempura batter and topped with chilli, onion and roasted garlic. I could have eaten a bucket full of those.
Then little dishes of deep fried asparagus, steamed prawns wrapped around broccoli, beef slices with stir-fried greens , a cold spring roll cut into quarters filled with what may have been duck, in a sweet and sour sauce with a big hit of szechuan pepper, crispy spring rolls in a dark rich sauce and then squid in a chilli and onion sauce, deep-fried. Are you getting the picture? Do not come here if you are on a diet.
We particularly love the crisp lamb, a dish which gives us all pause. It is a dead ringer for pork belly, with its fatty topping and melting meat and it silences the table, if only momentarily.
Just when we are thinking that there can be no more, a large seabass, steamed with soy and ginger arrives at the table. The fish is so fresh it falls apart in the chopsticks.
I particularly like the steamed bun which follows, presented like a clam, inside which rests a hunk of intensely marinated pork, in a sweet and sour sauce, the remnants of which Bizzle drizzles over the filling. I am sure that we must be reaching the endgame, but there is a large platter of lobster with noodles being paraded round the table. I confess that my heart almost sinks, but there is no world in which lobster with noodles will actually make my heart sink and I get a grip and eat it.
It is at the duck and crispy pancake stage that we lose the will and actually say a collective no. Showing admirable restraint, we also decline the toffee fruit dessert.
A word of caution: the menu in the restaurant states that dinner is £55.80 per person. The menu on the website states that the price is from £55.80 per person. There is a £9 supplement per person for lobster. We were not asked if we wanted lobster, it was just brought to the table. Cheeky. They just keep on bringing food until you tell them to stop, which is both good and bad and it is extremely easy to sail past the £55.80 mark, as we did. I calculate that we ate 20 dishes and I think that they should have explained how the pricing worked before we started. Our bill ended up at £90 per head with a couple of bottles of wine and a few beers.
If you want something different, something a little more adventurous than your usual Chinese I’d fully recommend taking your passport to Pimlico and giving this a whirl.