Hunan is so mysterious. That’s the main reason I’ve never been before; it first opened in 1982 and it’s been an SW1 institution since before I was born. But the word-of-mouth it generates are the hushed recommendations of local residents – people who go there all the time, people who’ve been going there all the time forever, apparently – half-wanting to spread the word, half-wanting to hoard the secret.
How is it mysterious? Let me count the ways. Being in Pimlico, for a start, which is just a hazy, lawless borderland in my London psychogeography. Even the taxi driver says, ‘Pimlico? What happens there, then?’, when I give him the address. It’s a mystery, wrapped in an enigma. And veiled in an unprepossessing white frontage, halfway between Chelsea Bridge and Kings Road.
Then there’s the menu, or lack of one. When you arrive at Hunan you’re asked if there’s anything you don’t like, and if you like it hot. I say ‘nothing’, recklessly – on the basis that a Hunan-Sichuan restaurant is low-risk for custard – and ‘yes’, as does my date. With adjustments to factor in your answers, and to accommodate any rogue vegetarians, you then get the same as everybody else in the restaurant. Which is roughly 18 dishes. Which means approximately double the number of courses of your average London tasting menu, and four times the number of waiters working sleight of hand at improbable speeds.
The service, unsurprisingly, is briskly efficient and not about forming lasting bonds. It helps to keep that mystique in place; the degree to which we have any idea what we’re eating depends mostly on which waiter delivered it, and how forthcoming they’re feeling. Sometimes we get a description which is technically flawless and yet, at the same time, not that revealing. The bamboo cup soup is, yes, soup in a bamboo cup. You cannot fault that as a summary. My date and I try to reverse-engineer the recipe as we eat, and the closest we get is something involving pork, ginger and a vague suspicion of peppercorns.
This bamboo cup soup is near the start of dinner, though, and by the time we’re a few dishes deep our bourgeois insistence on knowing what we’re eating has almost melted away. The dishes change daily, so going to Hunan in pursuit of anything specific would be in vain – though if you could, the chips made from battered, deep-fried beans, or the lamb, aubergine and shredded chilli; those alone would justify the visit. Or possibly the frogs’ legs – tiny puffs of meat on thin shards of bone that are nothing like any French-bistro frogs’ leg I have ever known. As real legs of an actual animal, they’re the greatest mystery of Hunan so far; but this is dish 14, we’re at least ten enigmas into this dinner, and so we are urbanely nonchalant about it. ‘Frogs’ buttocks’, my date theorises, half-heartedly. ‘With bamboo shoots?’ And then we eat them. All.
We wind up the meal with a sequence of saké, crispy duck, cold beer and banana fritters – all as impressive and dazzling and rapid-fire as a fireworks display. Hunan is not a leisurely place. But as a local secret, it’s easy to see why it’s such a jealously-guarded one.
The queue of people waiting for the second sitting is enormous by the time we leave Hunan – filling the corridor, spilling out onto the street. It’s cold outside and the queue’s not moving quickly, but nobody shows any sign of giving up. That part, at least, is no mystery.
Hunan, 51 Pimlico Road, London SW1W 8NE. Tel: 020 7730 5712. Website.