The house-smoked Hunan bacon at Blue Willow, a new restaurant a brick’s throw from Trump Tower, is a real eye opener: glistening swatches of smoked pork belly, something like a less-sweet American bacon, stir-fried with scallions, slivered onions, green chiles, ripe bell peppers, and entire cloves of garlic. It’s like eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner all at once. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of Hunan cuisine — which comes from a province of lowlands, rivers and lakes, and sprawling communal farms (though individual plots are now worked by tenant farmers) — is food preserved by smoking, drying, and pickling, lending the strong flavors of traditional farmhouse preservation.
Sichuan food has become incredibly popular in the city over the last few years. But Hunan, another Chinese cuisine known for its spiciness, has been gradually creeping up in prominence, via restaurants in Flushing, the East Village, and the Upper West Side, among other places. And each new opening ramps up our collective excitement about the cuisine.
Enter Blue Willow. The streets surrounding the former president’s penthouse on West 56th Street are now a massive dead zone, but this block still exhibits a couple of lively restaurants with outdoor enclosures. Blue Willow is one, operated by Vincent Lin, who has owned several Hunan restaurants over the last decade, including one called Hunan House, the previous occupant of this storefront.
Lin’s first Hunan restaurant, also called Hunan House, was located on Northern Boulevard in Flushing; I extolled it in 2011. Despite its substantial complement of Hunan recipes, it also offered Cantonese, Sichuan, and Taiwanese fare, along with specialties more specifically associated with Hong Kong and Shanghai. A decade ago, a regional Chinese restaurant was well-advised to offer a broad range of other Chinese cuisines, along with plenty of Chinese-American dishes, if it hoped to attract the widest audience.
I asked Lin on the phone recently how Blue Willow differed from Hunan House. “We felt like Hunan House was too traditional in its concept for a Chinese restaurant,” he said. “We wanted to change the whole atmosphere, type of service, and especially the menu.” Indeed, the bill of fare now concentrates more exclusively on Hunan and Sichuan, which are beacons for lovers of highly seasoned food. Chef Li Xiong hails from Hunan; he has been with Lin from the start.
Another intriguing example of the cuisine’s farmhouse preservation is Blue Willow’s “snow red greens,” brightly colored mustard leaves that have a peppery flavor on their own. Teeny red pickled peppers add spicy and sour notes to the verdant haystack, which is presented on a plate that resembles a flower. Choice of china is a big deal at Blue Willow.
Ironically, Hunan’s most famous dish is not as exciting at this spot. Associated with Chairman Mao Zedong, the braised pork ($20) comes in a funereal black crock. It’s an example of the “red cooked” style, in which pork is slow-braised in special soy sauce with other ingredients, imparting a characteristic color and earthy, beany taste. Many versions contain whole chestnuts that attain a pleasantly fudgy texture, but not here. Although the dish’s flavor profile is modest, it does provide a mellow contrast to the menu’s more aggressive items.
While Mao’s red-cooked pork falls among the chef’s specials heading (called Hunan and Szechuan, even though the rest of the menu is also Hunan and Sichuan), there are great Hunan dishes sprinkled around the rest of the menu, which also boasts sections of classic dim sum, chile-oil-slicked Sichuan cold plates, and dry hot pots, a contemporary fad that originated in Hunan. Yellow beef ($21), marked on the menu with the maximum two red chiles for hotness, is one of its hidden gems.
The dish is actually reddish, consisting of a straightforward stir-fry of tender julienne beef, made hot as hell with fresh red and green chiles. I asked Lin why they chose that name, since there’s nothing yellow about the dish except for perhaps the onions. He laughed and replied, “yellow beef is a special variety of beef in Hunan, and when we translated the name from Chinese, we didn’t know what else to call it.” Mystery solved.
Another interesting Hunan dish I haven’t seen elsewhere is Changsha spiced chicken ($17), named after the 3,000-year-old capital of Hunan. The dish might be a cousin of Chongqing chicken — you know, the plate of chicken tidbits deposited in an impossible quantity of dried and toasted red chiles. Here, the chicken attains an airy and crunchy texture, like Taiwanese popcorn chicken with the electrical zap of Sichuan peppercorns.
But my favorite dish on the menu might be termed comfort food; it felt like a variation on the baked custard my mom used to make for me. Farmhouse steamed egg ($16) is a wiggly lake of egg custard with a reservoir of ground bacon and pickled chiles in the center, and you can easily imagine it being made on a farm with just-gathered eggs. From the fresh waterways of Hunan — conceptually, at least — comes Xiang River fish, another standout, a whole tilapia nearly eclipsed by its heavy load of pickled chiles. At $34, it’s the most expensive thing on the menu, but it’s worth it for the looks on your guests’ faces when the creature swims in.
Neither should you ignore the Sichuan dishes on the menu, such as mao xue wang. This seething chile-oil stew from Chongqing is rarely seen here, perhaps because of its offal ingredients: blood cake, pig intestine, beef tripe, Spam, and beef aorta. If you haven’t yet tasted aorta (hint: it might be mistaken for white polyethylene), order this heart-warming dish and see what you think.
What about the name Blue Willow? Lin was very enthusiastic on that topic. Inside, his restaurant has been painstakingly decorated, clad in antique carved woods with hanging lamps, in a decor that recalls China in the 1920s. “Blue Willow is a china pattern representative of that era,” he tells me. It was created in 1780 by English engraver Thomas Minton using his interpretation of Chinese decorative elements, part of an art movement known as chinoiserie. And this merging of European and Chinese styles, showing a tranquil life among pagodas, lakes, and soaring birds, forms something of a leitmotif for the restaurant. But until indoor dining returns, you’ll have to peer in through the windows to enjoy it.