Chef lifts Chinese cuisine out of the ordinary

Sungari's menu promises customers the finest Sichuan cuisine in the city. It's an audacious guarantee, but you only have to try a few dishes to realize that the 2-year-old downtown restaurant honors it.

Like any estimable restaurant, Sungari uses fresh, quality ingredients. Right there, it is set apart from lazier Chinese joints, whose scallops don't taste as sweet and whose broccoli is past its prime. And Sungari takes advantage of seasonal produce, currently showcasing beautiful asparagus in some specials. When lobster is readily available, the kitchen will prepare it in a number of inspired ways.

Although not strictly a Sichuan restaurant, many of Sungari's entrees are peppery, which is a main characteristic of this particular Chinese cuisine. Yet even with the spiciest dishes, heat does not obscure the pure flavors of the components. Owing to the chef's prowess, diners can taste the individual flavors of plump prawns, peanuts, water chestnuts and celery in the Kung Pao Shrimp, each intensified by chiles, garlic and ginger.

Perhaps the best way to get to know Sungari is to start with your favorites and see how its versions compare with other renditions. In most cases, from Buddha's Delight to General Tso's Chicken, Sungari's preparations blow the competition out of the water.

But what really makes Sungari special are the dishes you don't see at the average Chinese restaurant, including the uncommon shellfish abalone.

At $32.95 for the South American variety and $69.95 for Australian, it's an extravagance (although one that serves several people), but other unusual dishes are less dear.

Besides Peking Duck, there are several entrees that feature the fowl. A specialty called Sungari Duck Slices is a fantastic medley of tender bits of duck, snow peas, carrots and mushrooms in a subtly spiced sauce.

And small culinary touches, such as making ginger chicken with young ginger Ñ which doesn't require peeling and has a milder zing than mature ginger Ñ elevate such common dishes.

One exception to Sungari's standard is its moo shu. Although it is served with a flourish Ñ the plum sauce arrives flambŽ, and the waiter will roll the pancakes for you with masterful ease Ñ this moo shu, already a sugary dish, is cloying.

Service at Chinese restaurants often is outstanding, and Sungari is no exception. Five minutes inside the impeccable restaurant, you have been reverently greeted, quickly led to an elegant table and presented with tumblers of icy water and a pot of aromatic tea by a discreet server.

Its understated dŽcor also is commendable. Tables are topped with white cloths, butcher paper and lilies, and there are no telltale red dragons lurking around; from its looks, the restaurant could just as easily serve Pacific Northwest food as Sichuan. And Sungari has an unexpected wine list, with several flowery GewŸrztraminers and Rieslings to complement the spicy fare.

Despite all it has to offer, Sungari seems woefully undervisited. Maybe its proximity to the MAX line Ñ which makes parking nearby somewhat tricky Ñ or its early dinner hours keep people away. Sungari's tempting food, and overall pleasantness, certainly are not to blame.

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