Cooking Season, Hunan Express combine dining
Winchester — Two local restaurants have joined forces to bring an array of Asian cuisine to Winchester.
The owners of Hunan Express and Cooking Season, which closed last fall, have gone together to create a new restaurant that combines both of their influences.
The new restaurant, also called Cooking Season, will offer a mix of Chinese dishes, Japanese sushi, and Thai salads, said manager Yun Mai of Winchester.
It opened Aug. 5 at 2644 Valley Ave., the site of the first Cooking Season, but there have been extensive changes made to the menu and the interior of the restaurant, she said.
Mai co-owned Hunan Express on Valley Avenue with her husband, Zhi Ma, (she didn’t change her last name) for about 13 years, she said. The couple closed the former restaurant a day before this new venture opened.
Earlier this summer, Mindy Chiang approached them with the idea of going into business together at the site of her former restaurant, Cooking Season. The original restaurant opened May 7, 2012, and closed that fall when owner Chiang had to deal with family issues.
Since their lease was up and they had a desire to go with more of a dine-in approach with their food, they agreed, Mai said.
“Most of the Chinese food is from Hunan’s menu,” she said. “The sushi and Thai food are from Mindy’s menu. In Hunan, we didn’t have any of the Japanese or Thai food she had.”
Chiang will help in the kitchen part time, she said.
The restaurant features dine-in and take-out, a sushi bar, and a lunch buffet that is offered from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday for $5.99 and noon to 3 p.m. Sunday for $6.99, Mai said. There is no evening buffet.
Most of the Chinese food on the menu is from recipes Hunan Express served for years, Ma said. Many are recipes that his father, Gen Chun Ma, a chef at the new restaurant, created while still in China before the family immigrated to the United States in 1998.
“When he was in China, he was doing a sales job and traveling all over the country,” Zhi Ma said. “He loved to eat and he loved to cook. He came home and tried to recreate what he had eaten.”
That love of food and traditional cooking fits in with the owners’ desire to create a family-oriented restaurant, Ma said. The recipes have been adapted to appeal to American palates.
The most popular dish the restaurant serves is Hunan chicken, which is crispy outside and tender inside, Mai said. The dish calls for chunks of leg and thigh meat deep fried for a few minutes and then stir fried in a special sauce.
The sauce, which is slightly sweet and salty, has ingredients, such as oyster sauce, soy sauce, and chicken broth, she said.
Like most of the Chinese dishes at the restaurant, Hunan chicken is served with a choice of fried or steamed rice.
Hunan shrimp uses the same sauce, but it is drizzled over breaded jumbo shrimp. The breading is mixed with a variety of seasonings to give the shrimp their own flavor in addition to the sauce, she said.
One of the Chef’s Specials is the Sa Cha Delight, which includes a mix of jumbo shrimp, scallops, beef, broccoli, baby corn, and carrots stir fried in a special house sauce, Ma said. “It is what we call a Chinese barbecue sauce. It is only a little spicy.”
One dish that wasn’t served at Hunan Express was the different varieties of mei fun, which refers to the size of thin rice noodles made with a blend of seasonings, sauce, and vegetables, Mai said. It is a typical Chinese dish whose most basic ingredients are the noodles, onions, green onions, carrots, bean sprouts, and stir fried egg.
People can order it with extra vegetables or add chicken, pork, beef, or shrimp, she said. The other option is Singapore Mei Fun, which adds shrimp and is spicy with the addition of yellow curry powder and hot peppers.
“I almost eat it every day,” she said. “We have vegetable mei fun on the buffet, and a lot of people like it.”
Fried rice is another bestseller, and Mai takes pride in the freshness of the dish, which has the typical rice, peas, carrots, onion, and egg. Unlike restaurants where big portions are made and dished out as needed, Cooking Season makes it to order, she said.
“Even if you order five orders of friend rice, we still make it individually,” she said. “With fried rice, you need more time to stir fry it so the sauce goes in. If you don’t give it enough time, it doesn’t taste as good.”
The fried rice and other favorites are staples on the lunch buffet, although they like to rotate out some dishes to provide people with more variety, Mai said. On the Sunday buffet, there are more seafood dishes.
Some of the other regular items usually found on the buffet are Hunan chicken, chicken broccoli, shrimp with mixed vegetables, sweet and sour chicken, pepper steak, and spicy shredded chicken. There are also traditional sides, such as vegetable fried rice, vegetable lo mein, and wonton, egg drop, and hot and sour soups.
The buffet is for convenience, Ma said. “We have so many people who only have time for a short break. It is not a jumbo buffet with a lot of food, but it is quality food.”
The other side of the menu is an extensive list of sushi made fresh at a sushi bar in the restaurant, said sushi chef Nick Huang of Winchester.
One of the most popular rolls is the Hawaii Roll, which has a center of shrimp tempura and avocado wrapped in rice and seaweed and another layer of crabmeat salad, he said. It is topped with spicy mayo and four kinds of fish roe (eggs).
“It is a little spicy and a little sweet,” he said. “The crabmeat salad tastes very good with the seaweed. The tempura shrimp is crunchy and the color is attractive.”
The City of Romance Roll has a center of spicy tuna, mango, avocado, and tempura crumbs wrapped in rice and seaweed, he said. The outside is sliced fresh red tuna and a mango sauce is drizzled on top.
“We make it heart-shaped to match the name,” he said, making it a nice dish for couples. The roll is his favorite because of the way the two different tunas taste together. “It’s very tasty.”
Cooking Season, 2644 Valley Ave., Winchester, is open from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and noon to 9 p.m. Sunday. For more information, contact 540-722-0488.
— Contact Laura McFarland at firstname.lastname@example.org