Fine Dining comes to London


In his brilliant new book, The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World, Michael Pollan tells us that the defining food struggle of the 21 st century will be between monoculture and diversity – the massive bio-industrial complex which satisfies a single demand, versus the smallholding which is an informal microcosm of nature’s own complexity.

Within this context a restaurant, as an extension of its chef/owner, may either confront us with its gargantuan impersonality, in which we are consumed as inexorably as the food; or it may welcome us into a domesticated ambience where we are allowed, at least metaphorically, to put our feet up.

Hunan, when I arrived for my one o’clock luncheon appointment, definitely fell into the latter category. As I entered through the simple, understated façade, the staff were eating together at one of the tables, there were piles of linen on the floor, and a couple of children were playing happily in the aisle. A fatherly middle-aged Anglo-Saxon waiter got up and greeted me by name, assuming correctly that I was the holder of the solitary one o’clock reservation.

“Sit where you like,” he said, gesturing to half-a-dozen round tables toward the back. “We are not busy at lunch time on a Saturday.”

I picked a table against a wall with ample space around it. There would be some serious wielding of chopsticks.

“Would you like something to drink?”

“A pot of tea, please.”

His smile of approval indicated that I had said the right thing. He went back to his lunch, the children went on playing, a couple of cleaners cleared away the piles of linen, and in a few minutes a young Chinese waiter brought a large pot and four delicate cups.

“This is a very fine tea,” he proclaimed. “You cannot buy it in this country. Mr. Peng imports it from Taiwan. It is gathered from the highest peaks of the highest mountains. It costs twenty-four pounds a kilo.”

I took a sip and added, “And worth every penny”. I was left to await my companions, happy with my tea and a good book.

ALL this came about when Miles, an old friend of an old friend from the University of Maryland, emailed me that he would be passing through London and able to stop over for lunch somewhere accessible from the Victoria bus terminal. Miles deserves special treatment, for he not only emails me lots of interesting food articles from American journalistic web sites, but even photocopies Jeffrey Steingarten’s Vogue articles and airmails them to me, thus saving me pots of money and tons of useless glossy paper.

A look at the Time Out restaurant guide, followed by a consultation with Richard Ehrlich, brought the happy suggestion that we go to Hunan, where “the charismatic Mr. Peng” is noted for his spicy central Chinese cuisine; and further, that I ask the omniscient Fuchsia Dunlop – author of the prizewinning Sichuan Cookery – to certify our seriousness and help plan the menu. It would prove to be one of my wisest decisions.

MILES arrived, followed by Hugh and Meg, another pair of old friends who are truly serious about food but not oppressively serious about anything else. They once brought me an onion from their Cambridge garden, so glorious that I had to write a short essay about it.

A dish of peanuts was brought to the table, deep-fried in a delicate crisp batter. According to both H.L. Mencken and Orson Welles, if one begins eating peanuts, one cannot stop. Fortunately it was a small dish. And there were small cucumber cubes, gently pickled, slightly sweet and with a few tiny circles of sliced red chiles to give them an edge.

Mr. Peng arrived to ask if there was anything we wanted to avoid.

“Bananas!” said Hugh and Meg in unison.

“Do you like your food hot?”

“Do everything as you would do it for yourself,” I answered. He went back to the kitchen with a white card, as they say in certain circles.

I have no real knowledge of this cuisine and so I can only respond as a naïf to the things that gave me pleasure. We began with small lidded cylinders like the rough Japanese peasant pottery I’m a sucker for, full of a strong dark broth with bits of small-boned fowl roughly chopped up along with their bones. (“ Sloane Square pigeons?” I suggested, a remark which deservedly remained unanswered.) It was clear, penetrating, mouth-cleansingly delicious. Then came an open faced “chicken sandwich” – minced chicken, carrot and peanuts on an iceberg lettuce leaf, to which we were instructed to add a touch of spicy soy sauce, roll it up, and eat it with our fingers. Bits fell out onto the dish, which I did not hesitate to pursue by every means necessary.

Our waiter brought us fresh dishes and took away the flavored soy sauce. “You will not need this any more,” he said firmly. “It would be too strong.” From that point onwards there came a dizzying profusion of dishes, each containing precisely enough for four small portions without resorting to an unseemly skirmish. There were small fingers of salmon wrapped in strips of monkfish and tied with a strand of chive; small square dumplings filled with spinach; cubes of lotus root . . . We were as contented as Tennyson’s lotus-eating Argonauts: “Oh rest ye, brother mariners, we will not wander more.” Then came a triumvirate of meat dishes: a stir-fry of delicate strips of Scottish Aberdeen Angus – Mr. Peng made a point of its provenance – small cubes of pork, and little morsels of sow’s ear which had been miraculously transformed into silk purses.

Forgive me if the gastronomic details have gone thin on the ground. I had brought a pen and notebook, but conversation flowed so freely that note-taking was out of the question. To what extent is the liberating effect of wine primarily subjective? As we consumed pot after pot of our host’s excellent tea, we bonded as though we had been emptying bottles of, say, a premier cru Gewürztraminer, able to face the spiciness of the food as an equal.

But the spices were not ferocious. Perhaps Hunan cuisine is not so violent as is Thai in its natural habitat. Or perhaps Mr. Peng was being kind to us. Whatever the answer, there was enough chili to give some of the courses a kick without it descending into a macho virility contest.

“Are you still hungry?” asked the young Chinese waiter. What a question! With such nectar and ambrosia we could not have said no if the sow’s ears had been coming out of our own. And so we were brought a final course of Cantonese crispy duck with the usual accompaniments, but with a crispiness of skin and a moistness of flesh such as I had not encountered in this clichéd recipe. It was like the very best of confit de canard – properly preserved duck tastes more of the duck itself than of the method of its preparation.

At the end Mr. Peng came to our table and shared his restaurant philosophy. “There is no menu,” he said, “and nothing posted in the window. If people like what I serve, they eat here. If not, then they go somewhere else. I can make some dishes hot or not hot. But they can only eat what I can buy today – there is nothing in the freezer.”

Our Gargantuan feast set the four of us back just over £120, including service. At double the cost I would have gulped but paid willingly. Perfect food, perfect service, perfect ambience and perfect company cannot be guaranteed at any price. We wandered along to Poilâne, stocked up on sourdough and happily went our separate ways.

Hunan, 51 Pimlico Road, London SW1, 020 7730 5712

©2002 John Whiting

2005 We have returned several times, with the same friends, and are as happy as ever.