Return of the Hunan
The tree fungus (moyee, also known as tree ears or clouds ears) in vinegar sauce was crunchy and refreshing.
Cucumbers with scallion sauce was bathed in a dressing of finely minced scallion and oil. It was subtly delicious, and one can also order the same sauce with cold tofu. I believe I've seen one Sichuan menu where the sauce was referred to as "scallion pesto."
Steamed spare ribs in bamboo came in a boatlike vessel I've mostly seen used for rice dishes. It had a peppery, soupy sauce. One diner remarked that the flavor reminded her of a Mexican dish, and I immediately knew she was thinking of adobo de puerco; it was an apt comparison. The dish got mixed reviews from the table. I liked it quite a lot while others were frustrated by the scant meat to be found on the chopped bones.
An item on one of several specials menus is referred to as Fuzhi meat dish, and consists of pork belly chunks with a rice flour coating, steamed in lotus leaves. This dish too got mixed reviews. About half of the table rated it among their favorites, but I was disappointed, perhaps because I've yet to find a steamed pork with rice powder that equals that of the long defunct Chinatown Sichuan restaurant Ting Fu Garden.
I think the big winner in the pork category was unquestionably the "braised pork Mao style," otherwise known as red-cooked pork. Made with chunks of belly pork, the dish was mildly spicy (more so than the version I've had at one of the Grand Sichuan branches). While rice wine and soy sauce figure in all recipes for red cooked pork (hongshao rou) I've seen, the spices can vary.
Sliced lamb with cumin dishes are popular in a number of western and northern Chinese regional cuisines, and I'm guessing the cumin came via the silk road trade route through Xinxiang province. Everybody enjoyed this one, though I'm more partial to the crispy version I've had a number of times at Szechuan Gourmet and the truly amazing northeastern version at Waterfront International (now called Fu Run).
Another item from one of the specials menus is the lean dry duck with soybean paste. More prominent than the soybean paste was the mix of chopped chillies atop the dish. It was indeed lean, and crispy, but dry is a bit of a misnomer as the meat is quite moist.
The Hunan-style sliced fish was coated with a complex spice paste and served with steamed bok choi in a way that resembled the Shanghai meatball dish called lion's head. The waiter told us the fish was frogfish.
Hunan House has a more extensive and more interesting vegetable section of the menu than you're likely to find at most authentic Sichuan restaurants in New York. We went with a dish called "pickled with mustard greens." It didn't taste expecially pickly, but it was a wonderful dish, with subtle spicing.
There are a number of tofu dishes on the menu. It was a hard time choosing one, but we went with the mashed peppers with tofu. Slices of firm smoked tofu, in a light sauce, are topped with a mound of the mashed peppers. Several diners remarked on the tofu's resemblance to smoked mozzarella. What's nice about this dish and several others is that they're served in a way that allows the diner to adjust the spiciness of his portion.
Perhaps the dish that was most unique of all (and now that William Safire is dead I can say "most unique" without fear) was the white chili with preserved beef. I had never seen nor heard of white chillies before. The chewy pieces of moderately spicy peppers were a perfect match for the chewy, salty but not overwhelmingly so preserved beef. The dish was a textural complement to the rest of the meal.