There are many things to like about the Hunt Valley Szechuan, a restaurant recommended to me by various readers:
The microwaveable takeout containers. (Brilliantly simple -- they don't have wire on them.)
The fact that you don't have to order the Peking duck in advance.
The Asian sweet and sour cabbage slaw that arrives at the table when you sit down.
The miso soup. I know, I know, miso soup is Japanese. But the Hunt Valley Szechuan advertises itself as specializing in Chinese and Japanese cuisine. It also has a sushi bar.
The variety of lamb dishes on the menu.
The service, as speedy as if everything had been prepared in advance. (Maybe that's not a good sign.)
The free orange sherbet at the end of the meal.
Astute readers will have noticed that I'm skirting the central issue of a restaurant review -- how the food tastes. That's because the Hunt Valley Szechuan is a pleasant enough place, one that I don't want to be negative about. But the fact is that it's no better and no worse than a hundred other examples of its kind: the contemporary decor, which once must have seemed quite daring but now looks a bit dated; the chef's specialties, which are much the same as every other Sichuan restaurant's (General Tso's chicken, orange beef); the heavily sauced dishes designed to appeal to American tastes.
The Peking duck, a house specialty, had a fine crisp skin and no fat, but the meat was dry. The pancakes, which you spread with hoisin sauce and fill with bits of duck meat, skin and scallions, were thicker than they should have been.
The cold noodle appetizer in a peanut butter and sesame oil sauce was much too sweet and had none of the promised cucumber.
Lamb in black pepper was wonderfully tender, but its brown sauce contained so much canned ground pepper we couldn't eat it.
The tea was so strong and black it was almost undrinkable.
I can be more positive about some of our dishes. Subgum soft wonton soup for two was made with a fresh-tasting, not-too-salty chicken broth, lots of fresh vegetables and a good amount of shrimp, chicken and pork.
From the Japanese side of the menu, vegetable tempura was lightly battered and crisply fried and not too greasy.
The kitchen produces respectable versions of fresh scallops with mixed vegetables in a mildly seasoned sauce and a "Two Flavors" dish (shrimp in a sweet and sour sauce on one side of the plate, and a spicy pork on the other, separated by a line of broccoli). But neither was better than you could get at almost any neighborhood Chinese restaurant.
Afterward, when I asked my friends what they thought the best part of the meal was, one of them said, "When we played charades with the fortunes in the fortune cookies."
Hunt Valley Szechuan
Where: 9 Schilling Road, Hunt Valley
Hours: Open every day for lunch and dinner
Prices: Appetizers, $2-$6.95; entrees, $7.45-$24.95; major credit cards
` Call: 410-527-1818
Pub Date: 6/22/97