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January 12, 2011

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A spicy retreat

IN 2004 Cotton Ding closed the first Cotton's Bar on Yueyang Road and began her long search for the right venue for another cozy drinking establishment.

She opened Cotton's on Anting Road in 2005 and another Cotton's two years later on Xinhua Road. These stylish bars are tucked away in old garden villas in the former French concession.

Cotton's are favorites with expats looking for a relaxed place for drinks under leafy trees when the weather is nice.

Six months ago Ding moved into the restaurant business, opening Cotton's Hunan House in a three-story 1930s house off Fuxing Road W. She fused her bar experience and her knack for crafting cozy drinking houses with her Hunan heritage - she was born in Hunan Province.

The ambience is warm and comfortable - dark hardwood floors, several fireplaces, white trim, a red sofa and a green room - Cotton's style.

"I wanted an intimate setting that felt like a home, and I found it," says Ding.

She considered her Shanghai friends and felt that they needed a place where they could dine, relax and feel like locals. She wanted to offer something different.

"Longtime customers not only are greeted by name, but also and often with their favorite drinks," she says.

Hunan House offers pleasantly surprising food, beverages and environment.

Comparing Cotton's Hunan House with those fluorescent Hunan home-style places, its price of 100 (US$15) to 150 yuan (US$22.60) per person is definitely more expensive.

But it's not outrageous.

It's hard to find other places offering such a pleasing environment, delectable Hunan cuisine, good wine and cocktails.

Drawing on her childhood memories, Ding creates a delicious medley of traditional Hunan cuisine for those who love smoky and spicy food.

Smoked food is prominent on the menu - smoked beef with white pepper, smoked pork with beancurd, stir-fried smoked pork and smoked bamboo shoots with smoked pork.

Quite a bit of Hunan food is fiery, oily and heavy-tasting, but at Cotton's, it's not too oily, naturally tasty and delicate. The heat can be moderated to order: medium, spicy, Hunan spicy and Cotton's spicy.

Since the soft opening last summer, Ding says the menu has constantly improved and evolved.

One of the most famous, typical and authentic dishes is large split fish head, steamed with two kinds of pickled chilies.

Other typical Hunan dishes are more delicate than usual, such as Dong'an chicken stir-fried with chilies; vinegar cold duck, shiny black noodles, seaweed and other salads.

Old customers from Cotton's Bar will find their familiar cocktail and wine list in the new restaurant. Cotton's Gin is a mixture of gin, brandy and fruit juice, perfect for a sultry summer evening six or seven months from now.

"It's original Hunan food with Cotton's ambience," says Ding.

Cotton's Hunan House

Address: Bldg 2, 49 Fuxing Rd W. (near Wulumuqi Rd)

Tel: 3461-1377

Cotton's Bar

Address: 132 Anting Rd (near Jianguo Rd W.)

Tel: 6433-7995

Cotton's Bar

Address: 294 Xinhua Rd (near Panyu Rd)

Tel: 6282-6897


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