By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
Along the middle reaches of the Yangtze River basin in south central China lies that country’s halcyon Hunan Province.
Known for the serene beauty of its majestic forested mountains and tranquil crystalline waters, Hunan boasted its own monarchy during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period and was a center of scholarly thought and Confucianism during the Qing and Ming Dynasties.
Beginning in the mid-19th century, Hunan, home to a majority population of Han Chinese who had settled in the region from the north more than 2,000 years ago, became a simmering hotbed of political unrest and social uprisings against the Qing, eventually giving birth to a nationwide culture movement led by the Hunanese native Mao Zedong,
Today, Hunan is once again bucolic, with pastoral agricultural landscapes and a predominantly rural population.
But while politically Hunan may have earned its place in history for its social rebellions, for the Chinese people the province will always be renowned for its exquisite cuisine.
Included among the Eight Great Traditions of Chinese cookery, the food of Hunan is notoriously hot and spicy, with robust seasonal aromas and rich, garlicy sauces.
Often even more capsicum-heavy than the cuisine of neighboring Sichuan, the tantalizing delicacies of Hunan cooking encompass a delicious array of sweet-and-sour, pickled-and-fresh, salty-and-sugary, hot-and-mild combinations that showcase the region´s rich agricultural heritage while teasing the tongue with constantly opposing flavors.
In Hunan food, piquant peppercorns and red-hot chilies are complimented with the acidity of vinegar to stimulate taste buds to better appreciate the range of spices and seasoning that enhance the dishes.
Hunan cuisine (also called Xiang Cai) is, in fact, considered the most savory of China’s eight major cuisines (although chefs from Anhui, Guangdong and Jiangsu will be quick to argue the contrary).
But it is in homage to the great chefs of Hunan that the newly opened Hunan Artz restaurant in the Artz Pedregal shopping center in Mexico City’s Colonia Jardines de Pedregal was created.
Part of the Grupo Hunan restaurant chain’s 17 gourmet eateries across the capital city – including two other Hunan restaurants, one in Lomas de Chapultepec and one in San Ángel – this massive temple of southern Chinese gastronomy presents an assortment of delicious and authentic recreations of Xiang Cai mastery.
The décor of Hunan Artz is both palatial and contemporary, with sleek, wood-covered walls graced with an impressive wine cabinet and intermittent paintings by Mexican artist Rivelino and Peruvian sculptor Aldo Chaparro.
The colossal ceilings are adorned with understated brown and black lamps and woven panels.
The tables are dignified with long linen cloths and spaced far enough away from one another to create a sense of elegant privacy.
The service is quite good and the piped-in jazz is mercifully not overbearing.
But it is the food that is the main attraction at Hunan Artz.
All dishes are served in the center of the table to be shared in traditional Chinese communal style, which allows families or groups to savor a range of entrées and main courses at a single sitting.
The appetizer menu includes a classic selection of Chinese mezes, both from the Hunan region and from other parts of the Middle Kingdom, from Shandong-style moo-shu pork to steamed Cantonese dim sum dumplings.
There are also crackly spring rolls adapted from eastern Chinese gastronomy and honeyed caramelized walnuts, a favorite food during Chinese New Year.
From the Hunan Province, the hot and sour soup is a fiery broth of chicken with snow peas, carrots, cabbage and meaty shiitake mushrooms that is hardy enough to be a meal in itself.
The fried calamari are also drenched in true Hunan flavor, bursting with the spicy tang of red peppers and minced chives.
Hunanese or not, it’s hard to go wrong with any of Hunan Artz’ appetizers, but when it comes to main dishes, it is definitely worth focusing on the Xiang Cai options.
The sliced leg of lamb in an oniony hot sauce and the sautéed beef slices in a sweet-and-sour orange and black pepper gravy are both prime examples of haute Hunan cookery.
The General Ching’s chicken – named after the Qing Dynasty military genius who trained the Hunan insurgent army – is a succulent meal of deep-fried chicken morsels basted in a toothsome coulis of soy, rice wine, vinegar, cornstarch, garlic and dried red chili peppers, and is not to be missed.
The Hunan tangy fish is also a winner, seasoned with honey, soy, ginger, garlic, chopped scallions and, yes, a generous portion of zesty dried chilies.
But being one of the few truly authentic Chinese restaurants in Mexico, Hunan Artz has also graciously incorporated classic favorites from across the Land of the Red Dragon.
All three Hunan restaurants in Mexico are renowned for their “Return to the Phoenix,” a mouthwatering concoction of sesame chicken in an indulgent sweet-and-sour sauce.
There are also honey crispy shrimp, a spicy, sticky and crispy delight that allegedly originated in Hong Kong, and, of course, the pièce de résistance of any great Chinese banquet, Peking duck.
Hunan Artz’s Pekin duck is faithfully prepared as it has been in Beijing since imperial times, glazed in a sugary maltose syrup and roasted in a closed oven until its skin is a crispy gold brown.
The duck is carved at the table by a trained chef and served with spring onions, cucumbers and sweet plum sauce with rice pancakes rolled around the fillings.
The dessert menu is full of calorie-laden Western delectations such as macadamia cheesecake, chocolate fondant and merengue filled with vanilla ice cream and strawberries.
The house cocktail is an ambrosial lychee martini, made from gin, Cointreau and fresh lychee juice, and to accompany your meal, the sommelier might offer a flowery Terrazas torrontés reserva from Argentina or a robustly fruit Ramón Bilbao rioja edición limitada from Spain, either of which will complement the sweet and spicy flavors of Hunan cuisine perfectly.
Hunan Artz restaurant is on the pricey side, but if you are an aficionado of great Chinese cuisine, it is well worth the money.
Hunan Artz restaurant is located inside the Artz Pedregal shopping center at Periferico Sur 3720 in San Jerónimo Lídice of Jardines del Pedregal (tel: 5929-3392 and 5929-3397).
It is open Monday through Wednesday from 1:30 p.m. to 11 p.m., Thursday through Saturday from 1:30 p.m. to midnight, and Sunday from 1:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
The dress code is business casual and all major credit cards are accepted.
There are also Hunan restaurants located in Colonia Lomas de Chapultepec, at Paseo de la Reforma 2210, and in Colonia San Ángel, at Luis Ogazón 102.