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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Hunan Boasts an Array of Saucy Dishes : Chef Tung-Chun Lin adds piquant flavorings to a variety of lamb, chicken and seafood choices.

October 27, 1994|NORM CHANDLER FOX | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Chinese are obsessed with good food, which is very fortunate for those of us devoted to Oriental cooking. Even a fortune cookie reports: "A man cannot be too serious about his eating."

One of the reasons for my Chinese-food passion is its sheer variety, coming from the diverse culinary styles tied to each of China's vast geographical regions. In southeastern China is the province of Hunan, reputed to serve the lustiest-flavored cuisine of all. If you've never tried this tasty food, I suggest you visit China or drop into Hunan, an inconspicuous spot near a Ralphs supermarket in Thousand Oaks.

Inside, the 6-year-old restaurant is much larger than it initially appears, with ample booths, walls accented with modern mirrored tiles, well-spaced tables and plants hanging from ceiling fixtures.

Chef-owner Tung-Chun Lin, who is 37 and comes from Taiwan, has been cooking professionally since he was 13. I remember sampling his cuisine in the early '70s when he was one of the highly acclaimed chefs at the Hunan Restaurant in Manhattan. Chef Lin is also a culinary artist who arranges and garnishes every dish to look like edible art.

I like to begin with chicken sizzling rice soup ($6.25 for four) in which the toasted rice really snaps, crackles and pops beneath a pouring of chicken- and vegetable-laced broth. A nice foil to the soup is an appetizer of shredded chicken in assorted flavors ($4.95) with cold chicken and cucumber strips in a peanut, sesame and chili sauce.

Because lamb is a specialty of the Hunan repertory, I highly recommend the earthy Mongolian lamb ($8.95), which is cooked with green onions in a sauce that's fragrant with star anise. General Ching's chicken ($8.25), billed as chicken in a tingling hot sauce, turns out to be way too mild and an insult to that ancient general who led the Hunan army. An order of lemon chicken ($8.25) is disappointing due to a cloyingly sweet sauce.

A much better option is the sesame chicken ($8.25), with crisply fried sesame-covered chunks of chicken tossed in a sauce that's simultaneously spicy and tart. If you're a duck fancier, I suggest the tea-smoked duck ($9.95), which is served in the style of Peking duck. I fill a delicate rice pancake with the dusky-flavored meat, add some piquant prawn sauce and roll it into a very sophisticated-tasting burrito.

Although Hunan is landlocked, it contains enough rivers and lakes for its cooks to have become adept at fine fish preparations, such as the rock cod filet ($10.95) sauteed with green pepper and onion in a smooth black bean sauce.

Chef Lin shows inspiration with such seafood dishes as Gan-Shao lobster, succulent pieces of lobster bathed in a sherry-based sauce filled with ginger, garlic and chilies ($14.95); deep-fried scallops in a biting preserved orange sauce ($10.95); and spicy scallops and shrimp in a crunchy mixture of shredded black mushrooms, bamboo and water chestnuts ($11.75).

The most unusual dish on the entire menu and probably a first for Ventura County is simply called "shrimp in crispy brown bean sauce" ($11.75). Large stir-fried shrimp are served in a celestial sauce of garlic, wine, ginger and star anise and topped with the most delicious and crunchy fried azuki beans I've ever sampled. Bravo!

On the meat side of the menu, I like the curried beef ($7.95) in an unstinting hot sauce rich in turmeric and ginger, twice-cooked pork ($7.55) with shredded cabbage and mushrooms, and sliced pork sauteed with zucchini ($7.55) in a rich brown sauce. Bean curd country-style ($6.95) combines slivers of pork with green beans ($7.55), fried string beans with minced, pork, preserved turnips and dried shrimp in a tantalizing mixture.

Vegetarians can do extremely well here by ordering tangy pepper and salt mushrooms ($5.95), wonderful sweet-and-sour eggplant ($7.55), sauteed Chinese baby greens ($6.25) in a soy-based topping and Chinese broccoli ($6.25) in a tangy oyster sauce. An order of rice noodles with vegetables ($5.55) is so bland, however, that I plea-bargained my waiter into adding extra chilies.

Fresh melon ($1.95) or canned litchis ($1.50) are offered as desserts; I prefer instead to finish my tea, and head over to Ralphs for a pint of Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia to consume in my car on the way home.

Details

* WHAT: Hunan.

* WHERE: 1352 N. Moorpark Road, Thousand Oaks.

* WHEN: Open Sunday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.

* COST: Meal for two, food only, $25 to $60.

* FYI: All major credit cards; beer and wine.

* CALL: 371-0075.

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