The city is undergoing a spiciness explosion. Tick off all the ways you can burn your mouth these days: Mexican, Thai, Indian, Korean, Ethiopian, and, of course, Chinese — of which its most incendiary evocation is Sichuan, right? There’s one type of Chinese cooking that's often hotter. Just to the southeast of Sichuan in the province of Hunan is a cuisine considered fierier, though it generally omits the electric excitement of ma la peppercorns. Instead, Hunan deploys a devastating combination of dried red chiles, fresh green chiles, black and white peppercorns, and — somewhat unique to its arsenal — pickled chiles, often used in soupy recipes like "steamed fish head with chopped chiles."
Ferried to the table in a broad, bone-white bowl, the appearance couldn’t be more striking. Rising in the middle like Moby Dick, pectoral fin pointed skyward in the semblance of a wave, a humongous fish head quavers. A good quantity of saffron-colored fluid sloshes around its perimeter, in which bits of pickled chile dance. Atop the head is a heap of chopped scallions, and the color combo of bright red chiles and dark green onions against the gray fish makes it feel like Christmas in March.
The beauty of this dish — found at newcomer Hunan Bistro in the East Village — is that it faithfully reproduces a homely provincial classic, fit for an extended family. The copious sauce constitutes the heart of the meal, containing all the steeped goodness of the skin and bones, making what the French would call a fumet. This magnificent broth can serve to moisten gallons of fleecy white rice, as the assembled diners take turns picking bits of flesh off the head, milky eyeballs first. The $26.95 price tag partly reflects the cultural value of this dish, since an entire fish with lots more flesh with an equal quantity of sauce paradoxically costs $2 less.
Open nearly three months on the same block as the mediocre-but-wildy-popular Philly import Han Dynasty, Hunan Bistro languishes half-full on most evenings. The interior is a comfortable mish-mash, with nautical lamps hanging from the ceiling, prim beige banquettes lining the walls, a private room visible through vertical slats, and a few cartoon figures pasted haphazardly on the dark wood paneling, in a half-hearted attempt to jolly the place up. Which should be totally unnecessary given the excellence of its offerings and uniqueness of Hunan food in the East Village.
The cuisine boasts preserved meats and vegetables, a broad array of cooking techniques, and a strange propensity for mashing seemingly incongruous things
What is Hunan, anyway? Aside from the mixture of chiles, the cuisine boasts lots of preserved meats and vegetables, a broad array of cooking techniques not involving woks, and a strange propensity for mashing seemingly incongruous things. Thus green pepper with preserved egg ($14.95) arrives in a bowl already half-squished, but with a wooden pestle picturesquely sticking out as an invitation to further maceration. In the bowl are fresh green chiles, eggplant, and a couple of 100-year-old eggs, in which the whites have been transformed into translucent obsidian. The taste is fascinating, but one time the mash-up was hot as hell, another it was bland baby food.
For an example of virtuoso pickling, look no further than the first appetizer, "Hunan pickled cabbage" ($5.95): pale leaves, whole red chiles, and fronds of cilantro, providing prodigious crunch and a subtle sourness. (The same vegetable appears to great effect in the highly recommended beef with pickled cabbage.) Meats and vegetables preserved by salting and drying also play an important role in the cuisine. Both types of preservation are shown in sautéed preserved pork with dried turnips, a stir fry contrasting — in addition to wrinkled turnips — lots of fresh veggies with funky and leathery slivers of pig.
Sichuan and Cantonese dishes also make their way onto Hunan Bistro’s menu, and in general you should skip those. The Sichuan favorite sometimes known as Chongqing chicken — you know, the one with the tidbits of poultry interspersed with a mind-boggling number of dried chiles — is here rendered without toasting the chiles first, creating a restrained rendition of the recipe. Tea smoked duck is another of the Sichuan fails, dry as a pile of kindling. There are some northern Chinese things on the bill of fare, too, such as lamb with cumin and sweet-and-sour chicken — save those for your next trip to Flushing.
Instead go for Mao’s red braised pork belly ($14.95). This provincial classic is not a commentary on the Chairman’s anatomy, but rather a dish that comes from his hometown of Shaoshan, Hunan, and said to be his favorite. It arrives in a ceramic crock having benefitted from a cooking technique in which Shaoxing rice wine and soy sauce impart a distinctive color to the thick sauce, flavored with ginger and star anise, creating a sort of glue that binds the pork belly, chestnuts, cloves of garlic, and other ingredients in a thick goo. Back in China the dish is fed to children to increase brain power; at Hunan Bistro, it’s merely the best thing on the menu.
Cost: Dinner for four, featuring dumplings, another app, a communal soup, a fish head, Chairman Mao’s pork belly, and a vegetable, including tax but not tip, $100.
Sample dishes: Cold bean curd Hunan style, braised rice noodles, green pepper with preserved egg, Mao’s red braised pork belly, steamed fish head with chopped chiles.
What to drink: For now, Hunan Bistro is B.Y.O.B., so truck in those large-format Japanese beers!
Bonus tip: Soups such as Chinese yam with pork ribs are thin and watery, but they make excellent palate cleansers during a hopelessly rich meal. Schedule one halfway through your repast by requesting it of your server.