Word is out, on the blogs and the food sites, about Hunan Taste. It's been said to be the restaurant that adventurous eaters, especially the long-suffering seekers of authentic Chinese food, have been waiting for. I think it's that and more, a restaurant capable of pleasing every diner, from the most conventional to the most daring.
The formula here is so simple that you wonder why other Asian restaurants haven't thought of it: Make every menu item available to everyone, and let the diner decide. Nothing frustrates the bold diner more than the idea that a restaurant might be withholding its most authentic food. (Almost as bad is when the "authentic" menu hasn't been translated.) So when a place comes along like Hunan Taste, or Odenton's Grace Garden, the drumbeats start.
If Grace Garden signifies its authenticity by being a modest hole in the wall, Hunan Taste, which is in the same shopping complex as the beloved Hmart, is unexpectedly pretty spiffy. The red- and black-splashed interior is a very careful balance of contemporary and traditional design elements, avoiding kitsch on one end and slickness on the other. I was impressed with thoughtful details like the wash-before-dinner porcelain sinks at the back of the dining room, the separate entrance area that keeps incoming diners from spilling into the dining room, and the smart arrangement of well-set tables, which includes a few semi-private areas in the form of screened-off platforms.
The balancing act extends to the adroit way Hunan Taste handles its menus. There are two of them, but diners are provided with both the authentic-cuisine menu and the one with more accessible items, and this is done in a way that manages not to be patronizing.
How challenging is the authentic menu? Well, by now we all know that our tastes, particularly what parts of which animals we consider delicious and which parts trash, are tied to our upbringing and culture. Knowing is one thing, but diving right into something like country hen blood soup or soft-shell turtle in brown sauce is another. However, there are among the more challenging fare many examples of what my friend likes to call "bridge food" - preparations that appeal to everyone.
There will be other visits for exploring pan-fried bitter gourd, hot pots with gizzards or lily bulbs, or (someday) stewed bull-whack. But for a first visit, it felt just fine to ramp up with recommended plates like crispy roasted duck, spicy sautéed eggplant and beef on toothpicks, familiar enough but very stimulating. Dishes are brought to the table when they're ready, which makes an idea already forming solidify - the food here is really fresh. Even the duck's plum sauce and the soy-ginger sauce that accompanied plump steamed dumplings taste like they've been made in house. I liked especially the beef dish: hunks of breaded beef pierced with toothpicks, which tasted a lot like the fried chicken livers you get at our municipal markets. Everyone liked the tasty and tender duck, and the eggplant was just spicy enough to cause comment. (There are no "spice stars" on the menu, another sign that Hunan Taste trusts its customers.)
Hunan Taste's version of fried tofu is the best I've ever had; somehow, this dish never turns out right in other restaurants. Here the balance of crispy skin and creamy interior was perfect, and the accompanying sauce was robust. Even that old standard, sweet-and-sour chicken, tasted good here, with fresh citrus notes instead of that fake jelly flavor.
Hunan Taste is open until 2 in the morning on weekends and until midnight on weekdays, and customers are allowed to bring their own wine and beer. Usually I can come up with some reason why a willing customer won't take to a certain restaurant, but I really can't this time. Except maybe this - no fortune cookies.
On the menu
•Pan-fried dumplings -- $5
•Eggplant on iron plate -- $11.95
•Beef on toothpicks -- $13.95
•Crispy roasted duck -- $14.95
•Sweet-and-sour chicken -- $9
•Pumpkin pancake -- $4.95
718 N. Rolling Road, Catonsville
11 a.m.-midnight Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Friday-Saturday
$8.95 - $23.95
[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]