October 1, 1973 | Vintage Insatiable
Star Struck at Hunam, A Chinese Roundup
Historians of delicious excess one day will recall the gauntlet first fell in the Year of the Mouse. It was the time of Nixon rapprochement. New Yorkers had gone positively dotty over the fiery cuisine of Szechuan. Competitive omnivores discovered a new status game: palate macho. Huddling over our twice-fried pork, nibbling diced pig stomach with red hot sauce, we choked, we sneezed, we coughed…eyes streaming, sinuses cleared, the smoke of Szechuan pepper curling out of our ears. In the clarity of a cayenne revelation surely one might have sensed New York was ripe for the flowering of the Hunan kitchen.
Hunan means little to the scholars of Chinese gastronomy. Hunan is a small inland province of mainland China, a land of mountains and forests and lakes and notable hams. Expatriate sons of Hunan long for its tung hsien tsai, a rare green vegetable eaten only there and grown in his own garden by Hunan-born Mao Tse-tung. Beyond ham and sausage and tung hsien tsai, the Hunan kitchen is unsung. Teacher Virginia Lee, co-author with Craig Claiborne of The Chinese Cookbook, could not find a single Hunan restaurant in Hong Kong.
And yet haute wok circles of New York are dazzled by Hunan. Almost as if Peking were suddenly to succumb to the cuisine of Oklahoma. Is it authentic? Has the sturdy Hunanese peasant ever even heard of veal (as in sliced fillet of veal, Hunan-style at Shun Lee Palace)? What would he make of Hunan vegetable pie (Uncle Tai's delicious parody of Peking duck)? Does it matter? I am deliriously smitten by the wonders sizzling in Hunan's name. I refuse to brood over pedigree.
I have feasted like an empress. I have eaten like a coolie. I have peeled hundreds of fresh lichee for myself alone and dawdled over lazy dumpling lunches. I have tasted elegant splendors: deep-fried threads of scallop and mustard green at Virginia Lee's…Yünnan soup, quintessential essence of chicken. But a cacophonous crowded roost of brilliantly rude and exquisitely assertive country cooking is my favorite Chinese restaurant: Hunam. [The province is Hunan. The restaurant calls itself Hunam. Maybe it was the awning man’s error] Forget the luxury of Mandarin. Abandon the subtlety of Canton. Overlook the smoke, the acoustical distress, the aching hordes in wait, the tacky scene, the too-small tables, the sometimes insolence of service. All insult fades because the kitchen can be often brilliant.
Asterisks fall on Second Avenue…Hunam's red asterisks, signaling "first time served in New York." Magnificent arrivals: ribbons of sea bass in spicy shrimp roe sauce; gentle chicken with sweet fresh water chestnuts in red wine with preserved rice; silky lamb heady from leek and garlic with a double after-whammy of pepper; sleek chunks of beef, fire-hot but flavorful with crisp deep green watercress, fast stir-fried.
Chinese gastronomy is curiously absorbed in trickery. Its genius is to revere the utterly inedible once having rendered it digestible (shark's fin, so precious). And the ultimate artificiality is insipid food of no flavor at all, all texture, no taste, fish maw or bird's nest, wedded to other ingredients for essential flavor. And then there is the delicate appreciation of…fat. Tungpo pork, the Lins write in their witty and valuable book, Chinese Gastronomy, is a precise geometry of pork belly, stewed and steamed, served with a clear layer of melted fat overlying a smooth brown sauce, the fat beneath smooth as custard. "People sigh, shout and groan with happiness when they see it,"the Lins write. Similarly esoteric is Hunam's witchcraft with duck, lamb and beef. The egg white marinade and fast deep-frying impart an incredibly voluptuous texture. Never is duck so silken. Never is lamb so smooth. Chicken tastes cooked but the texture is silky…it could be raw. Beef is moist and smooth as if the cow lazed away its life on a chaise lounge, and yet flavorful, as if the beast were massaged daily with a herb-scented marinade.
A poet-friend, haunted by violence, did not want to see the hacked chicken in hot sauce ($3.50). "Hacked, must it be hacked?" he pleaded. But his delicate sensibilities surrendered to that exquisite violence: tender young bird poached just 25 minutes then tossed in a sauce of minced ginger, scallions, garlic, and sesame-scented peanut butter set afire with pepper paste. You can design your own four cold delicacies plate ($8.50). Hacked chicken is a must on mine, and spicy shrimp so tender it tastes cooked solely by its spicy hot marinade, seviche-style, and marinated duck to douse with the house's liquid inferno, a pool of soy, garlic, five spices, ginger, wine, sesame oil, and hot pepper. Corned pork makes fine contrast but I prefer crunchy jellyfish, hot spicy cabbage or sweet pickled cucumber. Crisp turnip cakes ($2.25) are mostly shrimp, much too timidly turnipped. Sesame-studded shrimp puffs ($2.75) are subtle and pleasant, but the captain might have warned against shrimp twice as hors d'oeuvre.
Crisp, almost raw, broccoli flowers grace the Lake Tung Ting shrimp ($4.75), too bland and oil slick for me. I recall exclaiming over the shredded lamb tripe ($4.25) but thinking back, I wonder if it wasn't mostly the glorious hot sauce, for the tripe itself was simply tenderized rubber bands. My friend who ranks texture above taste spins fantasy feasts about Hunam's honey ham ($5.75) with lotus nuts. I find the ham much too salty, the sauce painfully sweet. And I must really be in the mood for their honey crisp banana (75 cents). But then, too, I have moods that demand Fudgsicles or macaroon tarts. One night Hunam produced a crêpe of sorts wrapped around bean paste purée. Their little date-stuffed pastries are better.
I have been to Hunam anonymously and I have been there recognized as a restaurant critic. I know how good and how bad the service can be. At its best: dignified warmth, patient counsel, fresh chopsticks and plates with every course, jasmine tea, each dish served by itself if requested. But the staff can be brusque and crotchety. Asked one evening to serve one dish at a time, the captain said it was impossible. "You don't know anything about restaurants or you wouldn't ask," he scolded. "But we're often served that way here," I protested. "You are not very considerate," he grumbled. An admittedly harassed waiter did produce our dinner as requested. To Dante, Hunam's country cooking might be an inferno. To me it's celestial. (Hunam, 845 Second Avenue near 45th Street).
Hunam's barrage of asterisks was a brilliant provocation. David Keh could not resist. Keh, who deals in Szechuan restaurants as casually as some men deal seven-card stud poker, took on the challenge with Uncle Tai's Hunan Yuan. ("Uncle" for master, Yuan means garden.) Uncle Tai's asterisks, cool and blue on the menu, mark a glorious defiance of Chinese restaurant cliché. Frog's legs, eels, braised oxtail, and what a great bounty of game: rabbit, venison, pheasant and squab, all at what must be the grandest prices for edible chinoiserie in town. Appetizers start at $3.50. Most entrées are tagged at $4.50. Lobster dishes cost $7.50. Noodle dishes are $4.25. And it is alarming to see a "first time in New York" asterisk next to crispy walnuts at $3.50, a sublime delicacy The Flower Drum has served free for years. The tariff (easily $33 for two with wine and tip) demands a snap in service and a posh of scene. Snap there is but the posh is an overwhelming statement of blue -- blue walls, blue carpet, blue light -- spooky on the face, painful to the eyes…about as cozy as Dr. No's interrogation room. White light in the smaller back room makes all the difference. But there Muzak tortures. And if Uncle Tai has the audacity to charge $7.50 for modest Chablis, he shouldn't let the waiter shroud it in a napkin. The menu offers to omit MSG, and our request was honored till at least midway through a festive marathon when four out of seven heads exploded.
But one willingly bears minor sensory assault because the food can be transcendent. Cold peppered rabbit ($3.50) is spicy hot in julienne on strips of velvet cucumber. Mild white fish floats meekly in chicken broth ($2.50) with a kick of ginger, celery, and Chinese parsley. Sliced venison heady with garlic ($5.75) was too peppery for my usually adventurous companion…perfect for me. Hunan vegetable pie ($5.25), a poor man's version of Peking duck, is clever enough to be Chinese though I suspect it isn't: instead of crisp duck skin to wrap in pancake with spicy hoi sin sauce and a flower-cut scallion, Uncle Tai does a crackling vegetarian stand-in. Eat it fast. Once cool, the pie is tough and slightly greasy. Here the honeyed Hunan ham ($3.75), smoky, salty, and a tough caramel char along the edge, is served with dates. Oxtails ($4.25) are robust and moist in a dark shiny sauce that could be French if it weren't for the anise. Pheasant ($5.75) is silky in a sauce perfumed with ginger. And sliced lamb ($4.75), the texture of velvet, is studded with dried pepper -- dynamite to bite into. Steamed bass with garlic and black bean sauce ($5.75), eyes intact, was somewhat menacing. "Eat it before it gets cold and smells," the waiter urged. What ingenuous candor. Even hot the fish was definitely a loser, as was a fearfully pedestrian Buddha's delight ($3.50), a banal vegetable sampler.
The menu has evolved since opening day, dropping duds -- like the abominable oyster soup -- and clearing up misunderstandings: diced squab with Hunan salad proved to be rather a chintzy portion of spicy minced bird on a few iceberg lettuce leaves, now it's called boneless squab packages ($3.75). Dipping hot pots and the chrysanthemum hot pot ($12 and $15 to amuse eight dip-it-yourself appetites) are new. And the mysterious screw cake is gone forever.
"What is screw cake?" I once asked.
"It's no good," the waiter responded. "That's the screw." Thousand layer cake ($2.50 for two) looks like a pastel petit four left over from your Sweet Sixteen. It tastes like Aunt Jemima pancakes layered with dates. Rosy fried custard ($2.50) -- fingers of sugared farina with incipient rigor mortis -- is at least an effort. Banana fritter was soggy. The best finale is still Chinese fruit. I long for the magnificence of fresh and preserved ginger, kumquat, plum, watermelon rind, lichee and pineapple on ice at the old Great Shanghai. For $1.25 Uncle Tai offers canned lichee and loquat to cool asterisk fever. Uncle Tai's Hunan Yuan, 1059 Third Avenue (near 62nd Street), TE 8-0850.
How could the ambitious Szechuan sachem lose? Canny David Keh had enticed the master chef Peng Chiang-kwei to New York. Uncle Peng, or so grand gluttony's gossip said, was once chef to Chiang Kai-shek himself. Counter gossip whispered that Peng had not been near a restaurant wok for years. Well, still…there was Peng himself -- silent and spare -- performing tableside one night for David Keh's collection of old China hands and graduates of the chop suey school. Peng was part acrobat, part alchemist, as he dipped thin slices of pheasant in egg, then seared it quickly in hot oil to be served rose-pink, petal-soft, an unforgettable beatification of bird.
Doom trailed Uncle Peng. The pressures of Manhattan restaurant reality were too much for the brilliant teacher. From the moment Uncle Peng's Hunan Yuan opened on East 44th Street, the Chinese food establishment clacked the sad news. Instead of winning the asterisk war with the promised 60 dishes Peng had "created for Hunan chefs throughout the world," the 44th Street kitchen was simmering a rerun of Uncle Tai's earlier menu. Exactly one word was changed. Instead of Uncle Tai's bean curd, it was Uncle Peng's, a less-than-thrilling rendition with cubes of ham, canned mushrooms, and peas. The Hunan fish roll proved to be a whole fish slashed and twisted into a Carmen Miranda posture, deep-fried and buried in a sweet-sour sauce on a bed of tree ears. Shredded beef with hot pepper and black bean was moist and peppery, but the dry-sautéed beef tough as shoe laces -- "authentic," the proud waiter beamed.
The house was crowded at lunch. There was pepper-studded pickled cabbage and carrot shreds on the table and a card offering chow mein to the timid. Even though Uncle Peng's Hunan Yuan is now defunct, the frog's legs, Hunan-style, were characteristically silky, hot enough to make one weep in joy. And I am still haunted by the fragile squab in bamboo cup -- the squab reduced to a moist mousseline, the texture of marrow, floating ethereally in its own rich broth. Definitely to be explored uptown at Uncle Tai's.
David Keh arrived in America, seven years ago, Anhwei-born, with $20 in his pocket, did graduate work at Seton Hall, was a busboy, a waiter, and observed "people here 100 years, happy to open small doors." Keh is not that patient; he dreams of big doors. He is not about to give up the glowing red splendor of Uncle Peng's and has decided to open it as David Keh's Chinese Seafood House, hopefully in October. Together we nibbled at sliced pig ear in fiery hot oil with an explosion of garlic, not quite a silk purse but, the, given a choice, would you rather eat a pig's ear or a silk purse? I wept and sneezed and loved it. "I have been visiting the French chef André Soltner," Keh confided. "Someday I'd like to open a restaurant like a home, expensive, only the very best, a Chinese Lutèce." David Keh's Chinese Seafood House, 219 East 44th Street, 682-0121.
Granting that Hunan boasts a marvelous but minor cuisine, it is staggering to find there are asterisks in the ancient arsenal still to detonate. Shun Lee Palace is riding the Hunan mania to a glorious renaissance.
A numbing schizophrenia ruled the Palace for too long. How to please sophisticated mouths without offending innocents of the chow mein persuasion. For a while nothing but compromise emerged from the kitchen…pretty food, mongrelized, loftily priced. The staff blurred into one enormous yawn. And though one might appreciate the sincerity of elegant purpose in the shiny silver-and-white Chinese Chippendale setting, I always felt I'd wandered into some nouveau riche matron's downstairs powder room.
As the guiding hand behind both Hunam and Shun Lee Palace, suave and indulgent Michael Tong knew the power of an asterisk. He lured a chef from Flower Drum, imported a Hunan hand from the mainland, pared the Palace's wearying menu and brought the country cooking of Hunan to East 55th Street. The cold delicacy platters rival Hunam's. Velvet shrimp puffs ($4.95) are subtle with a mousseline of chicken and fresh water chestnuts. The hot sauce of General Ching's chicken ($4.75) tingles feverishly as the menu promises. Spicy crispy whole bass ($6.50) is served standing up, deep-fried, its flesh much too dry, in a robust garlic and ginger-spiked sauce, fabulous though it paralyzed my brain all afternoon. Hunan green peas with minced beef ($3.95) is a less interesting variation on spicy string beans. But the Hunan calves liver ($5.75) with crisp green spinach is exquisite, moist, sweet and peppery. "Imagine how many mothers would be overjoyed to see their kids eating liver and spinach," the Cultur Maven observed. Spicier still with a chorus of underlying flavors is tangy spicy fish ($4.95) in silky white ribbons with shreds of red and green pepper. And there is still pressed duck and lemon chicken for the less courageous.
Even the Chippendale looks better these days. There can be real snap to the service though the house still dilutes its fiercest peppery fusillade for fear of setting the unwary tourist afire. Once the measure of your macho is established, the kitchen can respond. If the staff seems to stand around prayerfully, as if awaiting a signal for an ambulance, it's because, with typical passion for excess, we take in more dynamite in a single sitting than any sane Szechuan peasant. When a tender tongue cries, "Hot, Hot…oh, man, that is hot," they refill the water tumblers and bring fresh rice "to cool your hot." Shun Lee Palace, 155 East 55th Street, 371-8844.
Late one night at Uncle Peng's, a slight man in rolled white shirt-sleeves strolled though the dining room, smiling and talking to himself. "The fabulous Uncle Lou is back in town," observed the man sharing my Hunan vegetable pie. Lou Hoy Yuen, an orphan apprenticed to the kitchen at eight, is haunted by wanderlust. All day he sips something from a water glass as he tends his wok. Now and then he just disappears. Lou and David Keh met at the old Four Seas. Together they started Szechuan Taste on Chatham Square, Szechuan on upper Broadway and Szechuan East…a fiery empire. Lou periodically vanished.
Stopping by Szechuan East for a late supper one recent autumn evening, drowsing taste buds were suddenly roused by the best hot-and-sour soup -- tasted, felt, smelled -- in months. Prawns in garlic sauce were tender, gutsy, impeccably done, and barely cooked green beans were crisp in a spicy sauce of dark soy and minced pork. "Who's in the kitchen?" I asked some days later. "Uncle Lou," David Keh grinned. Szechuan East has always been a favorite uptown post of the chili pepper faith. Prices are Underground Gourmet or aboveground, depending on whim and appetite. But for the moment, Szechuan East may be better than ever. At least till Uncle Lou gets that urge again… Szechuan East, 1540 Second Avenue (corner 80th), 535-4921.
Are you suffering the ills of Chinese macho? Cool Canton heads prescribe the bitter herbal tea Wong Lo Gut.