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Hunan and Chef Liu [Fresno]

PolarBear Apr 25, 2008 09:11 AM

Thought I would start a new thread on this topic given the latest surge of interest on the part of the local and SF Bay hounds.

SF Board thread on Chef Liu (formerly of China Village in Solano)
http://www.chowhound.com/topics/508483

About Chef Liu
http://www.thehunanrestaurant.com/543...

Stopped in yesterday to return the Sichuan menu (not the one online) that Chef Liu graciously provided for me to make copies and distribute, and to have lunch. I've been reading about Dan Dan noodles for a couple of years on multiple boards but never ran across them, so today was the day. WOW, crispy ground pork on top of perfectly cooked noodles laced with cabbage and peanuts, in a red chile oil sauce (I requested spicy). The layers of flavor were outstanding, Speaking with Kathy, the lovely front of the house manager, I'm not sure I got the authentic heat, it had a great slow burn, but didn't bring tears to my eyes, sweat to my brow, or clear my sinuses, but OTOH I do love my chipotle and habanero sauces, so who knows? Being a neophyte, I have nothing to compare them to, but a little voice in my head tells me I'm likely to be disappointed ordering them from any other place in the future. Kathy also insisted that I try their hot and sour soup, compliments of the house, again I fear I'm spoiled by the balance and depth of flavor, only rival I can conceive of is the one Thai Royal Orchid offers.

Kathy mentioned that one of their waiters recently visited Beijing and was blown away about how well known and respected Chef Liu is there. I mentioned that local hound glazebrookgirl had checked out the menu on their website only to find dishes one typically sees all over town and not the cuisine the chef is famous for. Asked if I thought she should include the Sichuan menu online, I replied definitely.

Since I was there prior to the lunch hour I was able to spend a little more time talking with Chef Liu so I asked about the Tanjia dishes that Melanie Wong mentioned in her post. My pronunciation was so off that it took a brief moment or two to clarify what I was asking. The bottom line is that it would be possible to put together a special meal of these subtle, mostly seafood dishes, with at least two weeks notice since Monday is the one time in the week they have to travel to the bay area to shop for ingredients, some of which would take a week to clean and prepare, one of which I understood to be dried fish stomachs?

I took a look at their wine list, typical of what you'd expect a restaurant vendor to put together, to its credit it did have a riesling and a gewurztraminer. Diners are welcome to bring their own, corkage is a whopping $7/bottle.

Finally, Melanie was able to create a PDF file of the menu from a fax I sent to her. If any local hounds are interested in a copy email me at dlw38 AT sbcglobal DOT net

  1. Ruth Lafler Apr 25, 2008 10:52 AM

    OMG - the fish maw soup was incredible. Here's a link to a description of that item at the Chinese New Year banquet Chef Liu did for us a few years ago that included some Tanjia dishes (the rest of the thread is mouthwatering reading as well. http://www.chowhound.com/topics/27553...

    No disrespect intended to Fresno, but how did a renowned Chinese chef end up there when there are restaurants in major metro areas that would kill (and no doubt pay big bucks) to have him?

    4 Replies
    1. re: Ruth Lafler
      PolarBear Apr 25, 2008 12:49 PM

      How funny, Ruth. I just completed a sequential doc of the dishes, descriptions, and links to photos from that 2004 dinner. I just emailed a copy to Melanie.

      "No disrespect intended to Fresno, but how did a renowned Chinese chef end up there when there are restaurants in major metro areas that would kill (and no doubt pay big bucks) to have him?"

      I wondered about this as well and had a chance to ask yesterday, Kathy told me that he had become tired of working for someone else and wanted his own place, and that the cost of living and doing business here gave him that opportunity. She admits it has been a struggle the past two years but it has been worth it. A move to an even better location may be in the cards when their current lease is up.

      One problem as I pointed out, is that word really hasn't gotten out, hopefully our formidable houndly force can change that. Hell, it might even be Fresno's springboard to fame (yeah, right).

      1. re: Gail
        alanstotle Apr 25, 2008 01:44 PM

        A few days ago when gbg & I drove out to the restaurant for a quick look-thru-the-window recon, gbg said something about seeing an article posted on the wall inside the restaurant. We were not able to go in &, frankly, I'm not even sure I remember what she said she saw exactly.

        But it is possible that Joan Obra or someone else at the Fresno Bee has, at one time or another, written about Hunan. Sounds like a good reason to go find out.

        1. re: alanstotle
          Ruth Lafler Apr 25, 2008 01:48 PM

          Yup. She has (the complete article may be online somewhere, but this is enough to know that she's "in the know") http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G1-1...

          1. re: Ruth Lafler
            Melanie Wong May 30, 2008 08:27 PM

            The 2005 article is posted near the entrance. But it's more about the chef's background instead of reviewing the food. It does include a recipe for one of his creations, peach-encrusted prawns or something like that. The piece does mention that when Chef Liu took over and tried to introduce his own style of cooking the existing customers were very unhappy, so they had to bring back the Americanized menu and have the old owner teach them how to make those dishes.

            -----
            Hunan Restaurant
            6716 N Cedar Ave Ste 104, Fresno, CA 93710

    2. cocktailqueen77 Apr 25, 2008 12:09 PM

      Thank you for this wonderful news!! I can't wait to try Hunan!!

      1. g
        Gail Apr 25, 2008 04:18 PM

        Boy am I confused! I thought chef Liu was new. Joan's article was from 2005. Hunan has been around for at least 20 years and was always busy and considered excellent. I must go back to give it a new try, it's a bit hidden away in the center AND in my mind.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Gail
          PolarBear Apr 25, 2008 05:29 PM

          You're correct Gail, it's been around for a long time, but Chef Liu and his cuisine have only become a part in the last 2-3 years. They were on our rotation long prior to that, but as the article in the Bee previously referred to states, it was westernized, and as we all know, there is a plethora of that in Fresburg. I'm actually a little embarassed for not continuing to patronize them since I was lucky enough to experience a few of the dishes at the beginning. Mea culpa, hopefully I can atone for my houndly slackeredness (oh God, did I just pull a W and add another abomination to the English language?). If you'd like to be included in the updates leading to the chowdown send me your email addy.

          Cheers,

          Dave

        2. Melanie Wong Apr 26, 2008 10:28 AM

          Great report! Dan dan mien is usually seasoned ma-la, meaning numbing hot from the use of Sichuan peppercorns. Did the tip of your tongue get a little numb?

          1. g
            gmk1322 Apr 26, 2008 11:04 AM

            Any report on the ambience of the restaurant? The food sounds amazing and I was thinking of taking my Mom and sister there over the Mother's Day weekend since I will be in town.

            1. alanstotle Apr 27, 2008 10:22 PM

              A small group of us met here for dinner last night. Ordered almost exclusively off of the chef’s menu (more traditional Szechwan fare; less Americanized). Very enjoyable meal; I don’t think there was a single thing we tried that we did not like very much. Sun, our waiter, was gracious & helpful as was the entire staff who assisted us.

              I hope others who were there contribute additions or their own thoughts to this report.

              Started with three appetizers. First was the Hot & Sour Calamari (#1 on the chef’s menu, $6.45). Wow! This really set a positive tone for the rest of the evening. Long, thin strips of chilled calamari, with absolutely no fishy smell or taste, soft & yet also firm like a wonderful al dente noodle, not tough or chewy in the slightest. Served in a citrus dressing with slivers of spicy green chile pepper (serranos, perhaps?). Tasted something like an excellent ceviche. The calamari & dressing were not spicy but a piece of calamari with a sliver of chile was a wonderfully tongue-tingling event. Normally I’m not a huge fan of calamari but I could make a meal out of this appetizer.

              Szechwan Bon Bon Chicken (#5, $6.45). Cold chicken plate with a sesame-like sauce, strips of some vegetable (probably zucchini or eggplant), & garlic. Slight sweetness to the sauce. Very good tasting.

              Sun suggested we try our two appetizers with a Green Onion Pancake (#81, $6.50). Dipped the pancake into the sauces on our appetizer plates (esp. good with the bon bon chicken sauce). Pancake was dense & chewy with a thin layer of crispiness on the outside. Deep, rich onion flavor. Excellent by itself; even better when dipped in sauce.

              Hot & Sour Tofu Soup (#13, $10.00). Not as sour as many hot & sour soups I’ve had before, but a rich, dark color, delicate flavor, a fairly strong black pepper or wassabi-like spiciness (not spicy on the tongue but spicy in the sinuses). Ingredients were thinly sliced (not chunks). Wonderful flavor, delicate, you could taste each of the individual ingredients across the tongue.

              Szechwan Style Fish in Hot Bean Sauce (#23, $10.95). Wonderfully-cooked white fish pieces, light texture. Served in an orange-colored, ginger-enhanced, somewhat sweet bean sauce, thick & rich, not like a puree but more like the texture of a gravy. Unique flavor. Very good taste.

              Spicy Stir-fried Cabbage (#62, $7.75). Large pieces of multi-colored cabbage with chunks of red, dried chili & a thin brown sauce. Cabbage was thoroughly cooked but not limp. A distinctive wok hay flavor. I’d eat cabbage every day if it tasted like this.

              Crispy Tea-smoked Duck (#42, $24.00 for whole duck). A smoked (with tea & rice) & cooked duck, served with small, perfectly steamed buns (in the shape of a purse or two hinged scallop shells), a rich plum sauce, & slivered green onions. We were instructed that the meat is by its nature drier than other duck preparations (e.g., Peking duck) but that it’s meant to be dressed with the sauce, buns, & onion, so the dryness is less of an issue. Despite the dryness (which some of our group commented on) I enjoyed snacking on the duck as it was—sans sauce, buns, & onion.

              Pine Nuts with Corn (#54, $7.75). Stir-fried corn kernels; well-cooked but with a nice firmness to them. Pine nuts added another flavor level with a nice richness that complimented the sweetness & juiciness of the corn.

              Szechwan Style Dan Dan Noodles (#76, $6.95). Brought to the table in a large bowl, Sun was gracious to serve it up for us into individual bowls. Thin, soft noodles, served in a small amount of rich, pork broth (about an inch of broth in the bottom of our bowls), finally ground pork, & a few vegetable & cabbage pieces. This was my favorite item from the whole dinner. Although somewhat “pedestrian” as a dish, I found the noodles perfectly cooked & the broth wonderfully fragrant. There was some heat to the broth but not “ma-la.” PolarBear’s earlier description of this dish is spot-on.

              Finished with Butter Cream Prawns ($13.95 on the regular menu). Sweet sauce (perhaps with honey), fried prawns, & sliced strawberries. Unusual-sounding combination of ingredients but very tasty. Suitable for a dessert. Yes, dessert. With prawns. Supposedly one of the more popular menu items. Sauce was pretty rich but worked well with the mild-tasting prawns.

              Regardless of whether the dish was fancy or not, every one of the dishes was made with care. The dishes were creative & exhibited subtly of flavors.

              And (bonus) the fortunes in the fortune cookies were closer to actual fortunes than any I’ve seen in the past five years.

              Not really sure what to say about ambience other than "typical nicer-style Chinese restaurant." White tablecloths but also paper mats on top of tablecloths. Perhaps nicer than a "typical" Chinese restaurant (whatever that means) but not a fancy restaurant.

              Will definitely return. Hunan is a gem of a restaurant.

              I understand that photos taken by one of the party are forthcoming, likely to be added to this thread.

              11 Replies
              1. re: alanstotle
                g
                gmk1322 Apr 27, 2008 11:22 PM

                Great report, all of the dishes sound great; better than the usual greasy/chain Fresno fare. I am making this a mandatory stop the next time I am in town, I definitely want to try the Dan Dan Noodles. Do you need to make a special request ahead of time for the chef menu or can you request it at seating?

                1. re: gmk1322
                  alanstotle Apr 28, 2008 06:22 AM

                  The chef's menu is available all the time. At the front of the restaurant, the person seating you can grab menus from two different piles. One is the regular menu (maroon cover) & the other is the chef's menu (yellow/goldenrod cover). Just tell them you'd like the chef's menu (or perhaps ask for both).

                2. re: alanstotle
                  d
                  dimsumgirl Apr 28, 2008 05:53 AM

                  Wonderful report. Wish I could have been there. Can't wait to try this place! Thanks for the report, alanstotle!

                  1. re: dimsumgirl
                    alanstotle Apr 28, 2008 06:36 AM

                    Thanks dsg. We're hoping you'll be able to join us there on one of your return trips thru the Fresno area.

                  2. re: alanstotle
                    cocktailqueen77 Apr 28, 2008 11:45 AM

                    Fantastic report!! I can visualize every dish perfectly from your description.

                    1. re: cocktailqueen77
                      alanstotle Apr 28, 2008 12:55 PM

                      It's definitely good food. Everyone in our party helped me develop these descriptions; this report benefited from everyone's help.

                      1. re: cocktailqueen77
                        PolarBear Apr 28, 2008 05:37 PM

                        First, let me echo Alan's sentiments, in that this was a group effort. Lady PB served as our digital visual recorder (DVR? no wait that acronym is taken, right? How about DRV), Alan took detailed notes of every dish and also provided the superb narrative of our experience, the lovely GBG transformed the megapixel images that I emailed her into a workable size for CH and endured the hassle of getting them posted here for your viewing pleasure. Had any or all of this been left to my devices you might be seeing this late summer at the earliest. Finally, our wonderful waiter, Sun from Malaysia, fielded and endured our continuing barrage of questions throughout the night with graciousness and genuine interest in making us more informed patrons. I'd like to shout out a big KUDOS to our little local pack of industrious and dedicated hounds.

                        As for my part, I simply brought a couple of locally available wines for us to get an idea of what works best with the dishes or as a whole. They were the Lois Gruener Veltliner (BevMo @ $13) and a bottle of Churchill and Claireborne Dry Riesling and one of their Gewurztraminers (suggested by Old Doc's as a bone dry, minerally perfect match) both @ $16. Generally we agreed, the Lois works fine with most any spicy Asian dishes, as did the Dry Riesling on this occasion. The Gewurztramine didn't blow anybody's skirt up, not that there was anything wrong with it, but just didn't seem to pair well.

                        Cheers,

                        Dave

                        1. re: PolarBear
                          PolarBear Apr 29, 2008 04:03 PM

                          Ooops.... multitasker still malfunctioning, make that Claireborne and Churchill for the riesling and gewurz.

                      2. re: alanstotle
                        Sam Fujisaka Apr 28, 2008 12:23 PM

                        PolarBear & Alanstotle, thank you! I'll be trying to get to Fresno for my 40th HS reunion later this summer.

                        To those of you surprised about Fresno--large immigrant populations from all over came to work in agriculture in the 50s through the 70s. Each group put up authentic restaurants. Many were really good. A few were great! The chains did a lot of damage.

                        I'm looking forward to trying the Hunan in addition to some Basque, Armenian, the chicken pot pie place, and what used to be the Fuji Cafe (if these still exist).

                        1. re: Sam Fujisaka
                          alanstotle Apr 28, 2008 12:57 PM

                          I know I speak for others when I say that we look forward to your visit & look forward to chowing down with you while you're here.

                          1. re: alanstotle
                            Sam Fujisaka Apr 28, 2008 05:14 PM

                            Thank you. I'm also really looking forward to meeting all of you over at least a couple of dinners!

                      3. glazebrookgirl Apr 28, 2008 12:19 PM

                        Okay, here are the promised pics! Well, maybe not yet....technical problems....will try shrinking them and reposting...

                        6 Replies
                        1. re: glazebrookgirl
                          glazebrookgirl Apr 28, 2008 12:26 PM

                          Calamari and Bon Bon Chicken

                           
                          1. re: glazebrookgirl
                            PolarBear Apr 28, 2008 06:09 PM

                            Unlike my distinguished fellow hound Alan, I am an outright freak for calamari, sliced into rings, petite filets, large steaks, tentacles, be they fried, sauteed, marinated, or still attached to the hook (OK, that's a little much), but he nailed the description. The coolness on the palate, the great texture, the wonderful explosion of flavors that evolved (seem to recall a light touch of cilantro), combined to make this the best version of this cephalopod that I have ever encountered. Yeah, I could eat this everyday!

                            Thanks to the SF hounds (Melanie, iirc) for the onion pancake reco, again great as a stand alone but the perfect sauce scooper upper. And another thanks to our houndly cousins from the bay for the corn and pine nuts suggestion. A seemingly simple dish taken to new levels, and the perfect counterpoint to the spices in our other dishes.

                            OK, I'd hoped to do this in separate replies to the individual posts, but after learning that CH requires one to "Post My Reply" after each entry (i.e. no multiple responses in a single shot), here's the rest.

                            The Hot and Sour Soup was at least another level or two above what I'd been treated to on my prior Thursday's lunch visit. Depth of color and flavor were unbelievable, Sun pointed out that I probably got a taste while it was still in the development process since it usually takes some time to reach completion.

                            Finally, the Hot and Sour Cabbage was the only dish that had a spice level that approached my threshold, and it was sublime One of those that even though your mouth is burning, you just can't (at least I can't) stop eating it.

                            Again, so thankful for our local pack of hounds and the guests that were able to join us.

                            Cheers,

                            Dave

                          2. re: glazebrookgirl
                            glazebrookgirl Apr 28, 2008 12:30 PM

                            Dan Dan Noodles
                            Fried Ice Cream
                            Green Onion Pancake
                            Hot and Sour Soup

                             
                             
                             
                             
                            1. re: glazebrookgirl
                              PolarBear Apr 29, 2008 09:16 AM

                              Even though we all had pronounced ourselves sufficiently stuffed, had called for and received the check, two (who shall remain nameless) in our party decided they still had room for more dessert, hence the fried ice cream. I believe Alan had put away his notes by this time and was probably suffering from writer's cramp. In a nut shell it went around the table and quickly disappeared, very tasty.

                            2. re: glazebrookgirl
                              glazebrookgirl Apr 28, 2008 12:35 PM

                              Pine Nuts and Corn/Spicy White Fish
                              Butter Cream Prawns
                              Spicy Sour Cabbage
                              Tea Smoked Duck

                               
                               
                               
                               
                              1. re: glazebrookgirl
                                PolarBear Apr 28, 2008 04:20 PM

                                The image labeled "shrimp and strawberries" is actuall the Butter Cream Prawns, I was too brain dead at the time I downloaded and labeled to recall the name on the menu. Someone mentioned there was a second version on the regular dessert menu with peaches, ummmm.

                                The only food left was about a third to half of the whole tea-smoked duck. The other hounds insisted that we take it home since we had guests coming in from N. CA. We arrived home just as they blew into town, they were most appreciative since they'd driven about four hours and were starving. Thanks again, all.

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