Restaurant proprietor Cotton Ding has done such a good job with her establishments that people were inspired to document her life and offer her awards for having the best personality in F&B. So when she announced she would be opening a restaurant, showcasing authentic versions of her local cuisine (Hunan), I had to check it out.
Now, to be honest, I’m not really sure what authentic Hunan cuisine is. I’ve been to Di Shui Dong, Guyi and a host of other joints around town, but the only thing I have to compare it to in actual Hunan is third-world-style village food made in towns even people from Hunan don’t always know. Cotton’s food at Hunan Houseis nothing like what I ate there – and thank goodness.
Instead, I suppose the best way to describe it is Hunan menu favorites, gussied up. In fact, that’s how I would describe the entire restaurant. Cotton has transformed the lane house where the middling Arugula used to be with the usual flair she gives old lane houses. The décor echoes themes from both of her bars – warm red tones matched with sleek white lines and art deco details. The top floor of the restaurant even has a cushy sunken seating area, much like Cotton’s Xinhua.
Dishes are, for the most part, served on clean white plates in geometrical shapes. The menu, printed on brown paper and bound with string, is divided into appetizers and then main ingredients (pork, chicken, vegetables etc.), though the line between appetizers and mains seemed tenuous. Most of the dishes were around the same size.
The favorite appetizer of the table was the mashed eggplant (38RMB), presented in a stone bowl and with a pestle so that you could grind that eggplant to your heart’s content. While it came with a sauce, we found it already flavored enough to be delicious on its own. Also a hit was the Sichuan classic “口水鸡 (ko shui ji)” or sesame chicken in chili sauce (48RMB), which didn’t taste quite like any other sesame chicken I’d had before – one guest remarked that the sauce held a peculiar crab roe flavor.
Amongst the mains, stand outs included the sauteed pork with cumin (18RMB per piece), which gave Di Shui Dong’s famous cumin ribs a run for their money (an argument broke out over which was better; the table was split 50-50), and the shredded chicken hot pot (68RMB). Despite being a professed favorite of Cotton’s, the cumin beef (58RMB) was a little uneven – some pieces were juicy and cooked just right, with enough spice to satisfy. Others were overcooked and had somehow become red pepper magnets, like little chewy warheads.
Speaking of spice, you could come out crying red or barely heated depending on what you ordered. A wood ear mushroom salad (28RMB) may sound innocuous, but it had the table panting for water (which, I should mention, was quickly refilled by the competent staff). Meanwhile, the smoked bamboo shoots with smoked pork (58RMB), despite being dotted with little peppers, probably would still work with the most spice-phobic.
Compared to other Hunan food purveyors, Hunan House is a bit on the expensive side – its target, like the two bars, seems to be towards expats (or fancy locals) looking for a more elegant, intimate night out. The atmosphere is reflected in the drinks menu, which shies away from beers and more towards wines and cocktails. With its cushy chairs and multitude of corners, it’s a date place. Expect to spend about 150RMB per person.
Hunan House is located at 49 Fuxingxi Lu near Wulumuqi Lu, 复兴西路49弄2号. Tel: 3461 1377