339 Lexington Avenue (b/n 39th and 40th), New York, NY 10016 (map); 212-682-2883; hunanauthentic.com
Setting: Clean and modern
Service: Helpful if not exactingly professional
Must-Haves: Sliced fish in chili sauce, preserved beef with white pepper, preserved pork with dried string beans
Compare To: Thematically, Hunan House and Hunan Kitchen of Grand Sichuan. Nearby, Szechuan Gourmet and Cafe China
Recommendation: Recommended. Well-prepared renditions of an under-served Chinese cuisine.
When Flushing favorite Hunan House opened a restaurant in Manhattan, it did so to little fanfare. While some blogs took notice right away, it took two years for print critics to pay attention to this charming Chinese restaurant five minutes from Grand Central. Even now, for all the love heaped on midtown's Chinese renaissance, Hunan Manor goes largely unmentioned.
Sometimes we miss what's right under our noses.
I sure wish I pounced sooner, because that's two-plus years I could have spent eating largely excellent renditions of thus under-served Chinese cuisine. While some Hunan cooking bears a similar heat to its Sichuanese neighbor, it often skirts the numbing ma la one-two punch for foods preserved by smoke, salt, acid, and air. And when served under Hunan Manor's roof, they're worth missing your Metro North connection.
Like most midtown Chinese restaurants, Hunan Manor offers Americanized classics that are gobbled up by office lunchers, but there's no shortage of traditional options as well, easily identified by the preserved meats and vegetables, dried chilies, and vinegars that flavor them. My favorite may be oily Sliced Fish in Chili Sauce ($16.95, not to be confused with a more watery dish of similar description on the menu), where flounder and chili bean paste bob in a lake of ruby chili oil. The dish is surprisingly subtle, the fish just cooked, the sauce perked up by the briny crunch of pickled cabbage. You'll be left with plenty of that oily sauce at the end—scarf yours down over rice like it's going out of style.
If you want to keep score at home, our Preserved Ingredient Count (let's call it the PIC) is at two thanks to that cabbage and fermented bean paste. We can double it with Sautéed Preserved Beef with White Pepper ($16.95) featuring tender slices of tea-smoked beef stir fried with citrusy Hunan-style white chilies, their color bleached by drying under the sun. Add an order of Sautéed Preserved Pork with Dried String Beans ($16.95) and our PIC jumps to six. Pork belly rarely excites me, but when its rendered fat lubricates a brambly handful of those string beans, I pay attention. The dried beans take on a leathery texture and concentrated meaty flavor—vegetable jerky of the finest order.
When spicy Sichuan food hits you, you know almost immediately. At Hunan Manor there's a slower burn thanks to more layers of flavor that temper the heat. Nonetheless it will catch up with you, and as a corrective some of the vegetable dishes seem almost purposefully bland. Hunan-Style Mustard Leaves ($9.99) are chopped fine, served cool, and virtually unseasoned, relying on the greens' innate pungency for flavor. Shredded Potato with Vinegar Sauce ($9.95), noodle-like lengths of stir fried potato, bear a radish crunch but little else of substance.
More bold is a dish that brings our PIC up to seven, the popular Sour String Beans with Minced Pork ($12.95) combining little nubs of ground meat with finely chopped, lightly pickled green beans and a touch of heat. It lacks the can't-stop-eating-this quality of what you'll find at places like La Vie en Szechuan, where the pork is less overcooked and the beans bear more pickled punch, but it'll do. Less remarkable is a Chicken in Casserole ($16.95) starring overcooked bone-in chicken in a greasy, bland gravy. Rocking big tray of chicken it's not.
The food at Hunan Manor isn't carelessly oily, but you'd be hard-pressed to call it light. For this there are salads and pickles ranging from the forgettable (floppy Henan-Style Bean Curd, $5.95) to the excellent (Salted Turnip Pickles, $4.95, PIC: eight).
Though it seems the recipe for those pickles exists in a state of quantum flux. I was curious as to why the turnips tasted so deliciously meaty, so I asked what went into them. Perhaps MSG, I suggested, but no, I was told, just chopped chilies and chili oil. When my dining companion asked in Chinese a minute later, the recipe changed to include both MSG and chicken bouillon powder. Hunan Manor: congrats on making a great dish of pickles, but consider getting your story straight.
It's the only demerit on service that's helpful and friendly, if not exactly polished. And considering how much more I want to try on the menu, from tea smoked duck to eggplant with preserved egg (PIC: one plus one), it's nothing that would keep me from a return trip or from recommending the restaurant to beleaguered Grand Central travelers.
Still, I wonder if there's an unresolved gap between the desire to serve the traditional food of Hunan and the commercial need to sell General Tso's to an office crowd that expects it. By way of resolution, perhaps of the trust issues as well, Hunan Manor could institute a loyalty card that's punched out according to your net Preserved Ingredient Count. After ten pickled, smoked, or dried foods you could get an eleventh dish on the house. Or possibly the recipe for those turnip pickles—the real one.