The cuisine of Hunan Province is less known here than some of the other eight great traditions of Chinese cuisine, although more famous than others. Have you ever heard of Anhui or Zhejiang? It is very different from the milder dishes of neighboring Guangdong province, the birthplace of the Cantonese style, and is often compared to Sichuan. Hunan dishes are “often spicier from their pure chili content” than those from Sichuan, says our favorite encyclopedia, but less oily.
At ShiangMi, which opened in January, dishes are graded from zero to three chiles, to indicate spice levels. Most I tried were 2 and very few are 3. I found all 2 quite bearable on the tongue, not a tour de force at all, with plenty of room for other flavors to shine, sometimes noticeably.
Personally, I’m always happy to see sweetbreads, jellyfish and trotters on a Chinese menu, although I won’t order them. It shows that the venue is attractive to an audience that knows what they’re doing. At ShiangMi, waiters will easily tell you which dishes are popular with Americans and which are “popular Chinese.” Someone tried to steer us toward General Tso’s fried rice and chicken, but we ignored that advice. Don’t come here looking for boneless almond chicken or sweet and sour pork; the emphasis is on authentic Chinese dishes, not American Chinese.
The prices are high. But if you can afford it, you’ll be very satisfied with a couple of plates of steamed fish, each of which is big enough for two people. The steamed fish fillet with chili sauce is a huge boneless basa, a type of Asian catfish sometimes called “panga,” served on a candle-warmed plate. It’s Christmassy to look at, with the snow-white fish and red and green chiles floating in a sauce that’s poured over the slightly sweet, nutty meat.
Even better is the boiled Basa fillet with pickled cabbage, a little more soup-like, with the best citrus broth. It uses lots of red chillies and the famous lip-numbing Sichuan peppercorns, along with bean sprouts; Although it doesn’t look like much, it is actually a complex mixture and tickles the throat at least in the first few bites.
I was also very happy with the “Chinese popular” braised pork belly. The belly literally melts in your mouth (I’m using the adverb correctly) and is dressed with red, yellow and green peppers, which should be boring but aren’t here.
Pork with two chilies and green beans with Hunan sauce is also good, as the beans are cooked to within an inch of their life, but it is light on pork. And please don’t go to a Hunan restaurant and deliberately order bland dishes, as I did to appease a reluctant diner. In the steamed pork rib with taro, without chiles, the taro cubes had the consistency and lack of distinctiveness of overboiled potatoes, without enough pork. You would think you had discovered a mouthful of pork and it would be worse.
For appetizers I enjoyed the wood ear mushrooms, with their strange rubbery texture and vinegary sauce. They are decorated with a lot of cilantro. The cucumber and lily bulb mixed with red chili is very fresh, mostly cucumbers with the occasional sweet bulb for contrast.
Other possibilities are garlic shrimp, steamed dried tofu with chitlin, wind-cured pork belly (LaRou), and a dish I really wish I had tried: steamed smoked fish and LaRou. There are also many vegetable dishes; They cost between $18 and $22, presumably enough for an entree. Staff say among the most popular with customers are the braised pork and steamed fish dishes described above, and the Happy Family soup, which is chicken broth with pork and quail eggs.
If you order in advance, you can get clams, crab, or lobster, for up to $158 for a three-pound crustacean.
White rice or brown rice must be ordered separately, which is not a good policy.
The only dessert I tried was a disappointment: tasteless rice cakes in sugar sauce. The sauce didn’t even penetrate or cover the extremely bad taste of the half dozen burgers. It made me hesitate to try other desserts, no matter how authentic they were. In Tremella and Lotus Seed Soup, for example, tremella is a gelatinous mushroom, which sounds intriguing, but not for $20.
A short list of drinks includes beer from China (“ancient Chinese craftsmanship, refined German technology”), Japan and the United States. Eight cocktails lean toward the tropical, with passion fruit, chrysanthemum flowers and pineapple among the ingredients, plus a black-infused rye. tea. I enjoyed a “spicy and numbing” Mala Margarita with a salty edge, composed of tequila, Sichuan peppercorns, mango and lime. It wasn’t as numbing, but I liked the idea of more than one definition of numbness through alcohol.
ShiangMi (the Mi is for Michigan) is lovely to look at and its decor tries to set the same standard as the prices. There’s a display of tableware in the lobby and pale blue walls in the large dining room, which features a giant screen with images of Chinese landscapes.
Don’t skip the free hard candy in a bowl on your way out. I can’t read the label, but there is a subtle layer of salt on top of the sweet citrus, one more way to give the customer a little surprise.
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