>> Hunan Bistro | Eat the World NYC

22 December 2018

Hunan Bistro


The late Jonathan Gold, a personal hero and lost treasure of Los Angeles, once stated "When you tell somebody about a Hunan restaurant, always begin with the steamed fish head." Despite this advice, I am going to hold off and save this for last as that is how it was served to us, as our stomachs were already pushing back after the selection of dishes that did not seem to stop.

But first, it should be mentioned that Hunan Bistro is not even the most popular Chinese restaurant on the block. That title goes of course to Han Dynasty, the Philly Sichuan import that still requires a wait despite being around for a few years. Manhattanites will be Manhattanites I suppose. I have never been because it seems to be the opinion of well-regarded folks that it is not worth the wait.

Hunan Bistro does not require this charade. The small restaurant can usually do a good job accommodating everyone who wants to eat there at any given time. And as you sit in the warmth inside instead of waiting on the sidewalk, you can debate the merits of the two restaurants, or Hunan and Sichuan food in general, two provinces that have an ongoing battle about who cooks the spiciest food.

A nice-sized group will start getting its orders fast and frequent. The order of dishes here is as they arrived during our meal, starting with the pork dumpling with chili oil ($7.95, above), thinly-wrapped specimens swimming in a bright red sauce. This would be the first of many dishes on the menu that had one to three peppers next to their name denoting spice levels, but ultimately left us desiring more heat. Eventually we had a short conversation about heat levels just to make sure the kitchen was not toning it down, but were assured this is how they prepared foods. Probably a product of location, it is recommended to ask for a higher spice level if that is what you desire. And since we are at a Hunan restaurant, why wouldn't everyone desire that?

General Tso and Chairman Mao were both proud sons of Hunan. Visit the province and you will find a lasting pride in both. The general is Zuo Zongtang, known in the states primarily for the sticky sweet chicken ordered in takeout restaurants across the country, but in China as a Qing Dynasty military leader who suppressed the Dungan revolt in the mid-1800's. Both of these things are unfortunate, as it was discovered in Sheepshead Bay that Dungan cuisine was so delicious.

The dish named after Chairman Mao is a must order though and always tasty. Mao's red braised pork belly ($15.95, above) is served in a hot iron pot, the red referring to the style of stewing or slow-braising used in cooking this dish.

In Hunanese cuisine, cold sometimes pickled vegetables served milder are important to round out a meal and provide some relief from the spicier dishes. These four were all enjoyed:

Hunan pickled cabbage $6.95

Wood ear with vinegar sauce $7.95

Cold bean curd Hunan style $7.95

Shredded potato with vinegar sauce $12.95

The last two of those selections were especially enjoyed with sharp vinegar and spicing, savory but contrasting the rest of the meal in such a good way.

The surprise of the evening was a dish new to everyone: taro and vermicelli with chopped chili ($17.95, below).

Thick pieces of slightly sweet taro are smothered in preserved egg yolk and red chilies, creating three distinct tastes in each bite. This was all over a bed of slippery vermicelli noodles.

And finally that steamed fish head with chopped chilies ($29.95, below), at the prominent first position on the house specials page and almost always a must order at a Hunan restaurant. As if to celebrate Christmas, a sweater of red and green blanketed everything up to the face of the fish, that and the oily broth keeping him warm on this December night. But for this dish it is always the holiday season, the collection of dried, fresh, and fermented chilies is the gift given to the diners.

Always taken from a massive specimen, the head here is meaty and large, though sliced in half lengthwise so you do not get to flip it over for more meat. This is probably used for stews and/or other dishes.

Altogether very satisfying if not aww-inspiring.

Hunan Bistro Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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