WALKING out of a special lift and into the Hunan Garden Restaurant is like being beamed into a Barbara Cartland boudoir circa 1950. You step out of the lift and into a small reception area, facing a sheet of running water, huge lotus flowers worked into the tile floor, and a wall of less than natural-looking specimens of the blossom in lurid pink. This is the sort of majestic, blatantly expensive setting that you would expect to find in Exchange Square. But the food is many times better than anything you could hope to find in the great gleaming tower block. It is unbelievably excellent food, and presumably this is why all 350 seats are invariably packed with Suits as well as a fair sprinkling of the territory's socialites. Hunan Garden is part of the Maxim's empire, but has nothing whatsoever to do with the fast-food, fast-turnaround, fast-buck concept. It serves what must surely be China's closest match to Deep South comfort food: food that is hot, interesting and robust, perfect autumnal fare and the best way to stave off winter colds and flu, emotional angst and the bitter envy born of missing out onthe latest bull run on the Hang Seng Index. In short, this is real soul food. Legend has it that the steady drizzle and damp fogs of Hunan Province inspired the chefs and mamas of the region to spice up their cooking with the hot chilli peppers and flaming sauces for which it is rightly famous. This is exactly the heritage that spawned dishes like noodle with soup in bamboo: a wintry feast that has to be one of the best ways of spending $25 in Hong Kong. Delving into the bamboo cane mugs that arrive steaming and homely as anybody's mother's cooking, reveals seriously spicy kicks down at the bottom. Vegetables of farmhouse julienne size are heaped on top - dig no further and you could be tucking into one of the heartiest broths this side of Scotland. Below, noodles are kept moist in a hot chilli soup which could be a worthy meal in itself. This is the sort of fare that should be served up on the Great Wall in winter, or at football matches on dreary wet English spring days. Hunan Garden is one of those rare places where you can order with impunity from the comprehensive menu and not be disappointed, but there are certain things which should never be missed. Fillet of fish with fried minced bean at $136 is a generous platter of white fish cooked to perfection - barely opaque, sufficiently raw to exude its own delicate sea flavour, but tender enough to flake under the gentlest chopstick prod. But the sauce . . . It is toasty, faintly sweet like cooking caramel, nutty, crunchy and an amazingly well-judged accompaniment to the fish. There are chilli dishes that are hot and fiery and catch the throat, but it is never used as an excuse to go low on flavour. The spicy nature of Hunan cuisine is borrowed from neighbouring Sichuan: the hot chilli peppers that grow in south-central China are a key motif of dishes in both provinces. Smoking with chillies - a double bite at honing and spicing meats and fish - is also a characteristic twist. Pimentos, too, are popular, and bean curd, which arrives in tiny cubes, and cucumber and hot peppers in a spicey sauce are a rare treat for a starter at the Hunan Garden. Prawns - with one-chilli symbol or two - are big succulent specimens, lightly coated in batter and doused in an oil and dried chilli sauce. These are by no means oily dishes, but less robust appetites might prefer to go for the rather more delicate sauteed shrimp with garlic stem - fresh garlic blush-coloured prawns that might have been whisked from the sea that morning. THE place really is infallible: order shredded chicken and vermicelli with sesame paste safe in the knowledge that you won't spend the next 30 minutes elegantly endeavouring to pick skin from flesh, or discreetly spit out bones. The standards are elegantly executed: you will not go wrong ordering classics like pigeon smoked in camphor wood and tea leaves here, or inspired twists like diced chicken and cashew nut with broad-bean sauce. One minor gripe is the flannels which are brought to the table along with tea - they are as liberally doused with antiseptic as the dishes are with chillies, and rather less pleasing under the nose. Diners are required to banish the trays to the furthest corners of the table, or eat their meal with the sanitised scent of a hospital accompanying every bite. Beyond this there are few drawbacks: service is speedy and smart - all that service should be in a busy lunchtime joint, packed out with men and women who know the value of time but also know where to go to get great food to refuel them for an afternoon in the fast lane. Dishes arrive in a semblance of order: hors d'oeuvres first, main dishes together - so diners are not faced with freezing, congealing plates of food. Tea is dispensed liberally, along the typical one-country, two-tea system: jasmine for Westerners, the stronger pu li for locals. Just once it would be nice to be offered a choice, though it is interesting to note foreign taste takes precedence at mixed tables. Value is a given fact: perhaps $500 for two at lunch seems excessive in a place where the name Maxim's appears on the menu, but both quantity and quality far outstrip the bill, and it is perfectly possible to spend less. The restaurant has been dishing up Hunan cuisine for six years: presumably elegantly cheong sam-ed girls have been greeting customers out of the lift and directing them back in for as long. Perhaps the metal swans fathomed into long vases - absolutely the last word in kitsch - have adorned the tables since then too. But forget the vases, the screeching colour scheme and focus instead on the sweeping vista of the harbour and sink your teeth into what is probably the best comfort food ever dished up in Hong Kong. Hunan Garden Restaurant, The Forum, Exchange Square. Tel: 868 2880. Hours: 11.30am to 3pm; 5.30pm to midnight, seven days a week.