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Hunan House

Jul 26, 2010
by Christopher St Cavish

Area: The Hunan House is in a Fuxing Xi Lu lane. The three-story house used to be Arugula. Peek out of the lane, and you'll see JZ Club's bright sign shining through the plane trees. That's archetypal French Concession: trees & jazz. Shout loudly enough and you'll disturb the den of Spanish at Tara 57. The Yongfu Lu bar farm -- this, this, this, this, this -- is very close. Charmant and the (unrelated) Cotton Club are a two minute stroll in the opposite direction.

What it is: Cotton Ding, proprietress of two expat drinking landmarks, moving into restaurants. She's fused her bar experience and her knack for crafting cozy drinking houses with her Hunan heritage. She's come up with something that's surprisingly rare: a comfortable Hunan restaurant with a cocktail and wine list. As she explains it, it's "Original Hunan food with Cotton's ambiance." She could trademark the ambiance by now: old house, multiple fireplaces, dim lighting, white trim, one green room. Check, check, check, check, check. Did you know the 1927 Arugula house had a fireplace? Cotton restored it. It runs through the three floors.

Foodwise, Cotton is trying to do a sprinkling of Hunan's greatest hits, a few personal favorites, and a couple unexpected flourishes. It's haltingly foreigner-friendly -- no bones in the chicken and chili dry-pot but all manner of hellish chili heat in the hand-torn cold duck, for example.

So, you've got a big split fish head, steamed with two kinds of pickled chilies, but also that cold duck -- a Cotton favorite -- and salads of seaweed, shiny black noodles, and wood ear mushrooms. Cucumbers with stir-fried perilla, an herb more commonly found in Japanese places as shiso, are a personal thing, as is the refreshing cold lotus root. The thin slices are flavored with lemon and sugar. They taste like crunchy Sprite.

Smoking is a big thing in Hunan, and so it's a big thing on Cotton's menu. Smoked beef with white peppers, stir-fried smoked pork, smoked bamboo shoots with smoked pork, smoked pork with smoked beancurd.... You get the point.

Cotton's Hunan House does a twist on Hunan's popular cumin-crusted ribs: they don't do ribs. They do cumin pork shanks instead. And in place of watermelon, they finish every meal with a cold sweet soup of lotus seed and cloud ear mushrooms. All in all, it's a pretty restrained menu for a Chinese restaurant -- it doesn't sprawl -- but has enough unique things to keep it interesting.

If you need it, you can moderate the spice level. I don't think it's on the menu, but Cotton says the kitchen does four levels of spice: Medium, Spicy, Hunan Spicy, and Cotton's Spicy.

Atmosphere: It's what Cotton does. The overall vibe is cozy, romantic, easy-going. She's done the whole place up in plush burgundy furniture, white walls, and dark wood floors. The first floor is a little cocktail lounge with a sunken bar. A steep staircase swirls up to the dining rooms. They both have a few tables in the common room, and then a sunken seating room for parties of, say, eight or so people. The third floor has Cotton's Green Room -- a feature carried over from the bars -- and a handsome exposed beam ceiling.

Damage: A hundred to hundred and fifty rmb per person. It's nothing outrageous. Of course, if you start comparing prices to your fluorescent Hunan homestyle place, it's more expensive. But the priciest thing on the menu is like 68rmb. All the vegetable dishes are in the thirties; most of the mains are in the fifties. A pint of draft Tsingtao is 30rmb, and Cotton's martini price is still pegged at 2005 levels: 50rmb. That's starting to seem like a deal in these 80rmb restaurant cocktail times.

Who's going: Eventually, all kinds of people in all kinds of ways. You'll get Cotton mobilizing her loyal bar following. You'll get everyone who wants Hunan food and atmosphere, and maybe even a cocktail, all in the same place. You'll get people who recognize Sichuan Citizen as a good idea, for a similar reason. People on dates (there are candles) and friends in groups (there are sunken rooms) and bigger groups throwing hello/goodbye parties (the split-level floors and intimate capacity make it ideal). Oh, and Cotton.
July 17

Lane 49 Fuxing Xi Lu,
near Wulumuqi Lu


3461 1377

Mon-Fri, 11am-2.30, 5-11pm
Sat-Sun, 11am-midnight

Wood ear mushroom salad, 28rmb;

Smoked bamboo shoots with smoked pork, 58rmb;

Cumin beef, 58rmb;

Smoked pork with smoked beancurd pot, 68rmb;

Spicy and sour potato slivers, 28rmb;

Tsingtao draft (pint), 30rmb
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