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House of Hunan
****
Out of a possible five
$$

Little things tastily bring big benefits

Attention to detail separates House of Hunan from the norm.

The upscale décor – with a gorgeous wooden rising-sun mural and a topiary with statues of cranes – is traditional but not at all cheesy or cheap.

There is a well-trained, attentive staff that does the little extras like personally placing silverware and cloth napkins at your table after seating or explaining how they plan to course out your meal because the dim sum takes a little longer to prepare.

No, House of Hunan is not the kind of Chinese restaurant with big color photos of the dishes hanging over the order counter. Takeout and delivery are available, but this isn’t fast food. It is sit-down, classic American-style Chinese that takes a little more time. Take the dim sum, for example. There are only two styles – shu-mai pork dumplings and steamed shrimp dumplings – which dot many Chinese buffet tables, but these are not cheap imitations of what is popular in big-city dim sum restaurants.

The four purses of steamed pork dim sum were topped with plum sauce and had a heavy, somewhat doughy wrap that made them a bit sticky and kind of a textural challenge, but it was a challenge worth taking to taste the moist, rich mix of pork and vegetables inside. The shrimp dumplings were not as heavy, the wrapping was more pleasant and the filling of minced shrimp, water chestnut and garlic was perfect when dipped into the chili oil or ginger sauce condiments.

The name was all one needed to explain the sensation the scallops in velvet sauce had on the palate. The thick, somewhat creamy egg white sauce coated the mouth with each bite, and the large pieces of egg white emulated the plump, tender, succulent scallops. Carrots, baby corn, broccoli and water chestnuts provided a nice textural change.

Texture played a key role in the crispy garlic tofu appetizer as well. Four strips of soybean curd about the size of a fried cheese stick you’d get at a pizza place were wok fried to a crispy brown on the outside while still being soft and moist inside. The sweet garlic sauce was the perfect match for the delicate flavor of the tofu, and chopped walnuts added a little extra crunch.

The sizzling steak entrée was hurt by its dry, tough texture. Presented in an entertaining fashion tableside on a hot cast-iron platter that sizzled when hit with the sweet, dark, soy-based sauce and vegetables, the sirloin is sliced into strips before it is presented to the diner. The steak had a decent flavor and was cooked to the right temperature, but I think slicing it before it properly rested caused the juices to be lost. Next time I would ask them to serve it whole.

The pan-fried jumbo shrimp in shell with spicy pepper and salt was probably the simplest and most enjoyable dish I had. Eleven giant shrimp were butterfly cut, lightly dusted with breading mixture and wok fried with spicy red pepper, quartered garlic cloves, scallions and coarse salt. It was a chore to peel and eat the shrimp, but it was unnecessary because the crunchy cooked shells were better left on. All of the shrimp were moist, delicious and not at all oily. I found myself dragging the shrimp along my plate to pick off little bits of garlic and pepper, which made it an intensely spicy dish.

The spicy slaw appetizer was nothing compared with the shrimp in terms of heat, but it, too, won favor. Thin shards of cabbage and carrot in a sweet vinegar dressing with just a touch of red pepper created a fresh, palate-cleansing addition to the soup and appetizers. It was another little complimentary extra among many provided.

Other nice touches: My water glass was refilled many times over by an employee who seemed to be just in charge of doing that throughout the dining room; sweet and sour and spicy mustard sauce were poured into clean dishes and served with the appetizers instead of sitting on the tables all day; and chairs were inspected by the hostess to ensure they were clean before my party was seated.

It was worth noting, however, that the men’s restroom was atrocious. The floors and counter were wet and dirty, broken ceiling tiles exposed insulation and there were several marks on the wall where it appeared as if cigarettes had been extinguished.

But that was not enough to keep me from going back to House of Hunan. The quality and care taken in preparing and serving the food, as well as its comfortable, classy atmosphere, ensure that.

Restaurant: House of Hunan

Address: 5626 Coldwater Road

Phone: 482-9402

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday; 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday; 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday

Cuisine: Asian

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol served: Beer and wine

Credit cards accepted: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes, but no kids’ menu

Menu: Dim sum (shrimp $5.25; pork $4.25), crispy garlic tofu ($3.95), sizzling steak ($16.95), scallops in velvet sauce ($11.95), pan fried jumbo shrimp ($16.75)

Rating breakdown: Food: ** 1/2 (3 star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: * (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. E-mail him at rduvall@jg.net, call at 461-8130, or go to the “Dining Out” topic of “The Board” at www.journalgazette.net. DuVall’s past reviews can also be found at the Web site, and you can hear Ryan from 5 to 6 p.m. every Thursday on 92.3 FM, The Fort.

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