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Pearl phenom one-ups jaded Chinese joints

Sungari's new outpost shines bright

As increasingly terrific as Portland dining may be, one complaint surfaces again and again, especially from transplanted San Franciscans: There's no good Chinese food.

A cluster of venerable Cantonese, Sichuan and dim sum restaurants in Chinatown does little to silence the laments. The atmosphere of these joints typically is noirish, and the food Ñ which can be greasy and fatty Ñ doesn't suit palates accustomed to lean chicken breast, crispy vegetables and sparkling-fresh seafood. They're great for living out scenes from 1940s cinema classics or for grabbing a fast, inexpensive lunch, but these creaky, fluorescent-lit restaurants do not beckon when you're in the market for a nice meal.

Since the elegant Sungari Restaurant opened downtown nearly three years ago, diners' gripes have become less credible. And now, the arrival of sister restaurant Sungari Pearl should convince even staunch naysayers that fine, innovative Chinese cuisine exists in Portland.

To keep up with its chic Pearl District neighbors, Sungari Pearl signed up for a full prescription of industrial-chic dŽcor: acid-treated concrete floor, exposed shiny ductwork suspended from the warehouse-height ceilings, a sand-and-cinnamon color palette and tasteful Chinese artifacts. Despite the cavernous setting, this restaurant has a warmer, softer ambience than its austere, gray-toned cousin on Southwest First Avenue.

Many staples of the original menu also appear at Sungari Pearl, including such gems as prawns in spicy tangy sauce, Mongolian beef and chicken with young ginger.

The most impressive of several new offerings are a pair of unusual soups. Creamy chicken-corn soup with crabmeat is served for two ($7.95) from a large tureen that keeps the excess warm at your table while you savor every bite of the silken creation. Corn and fresh crab impart a wonderfully light, sweet flavor to a brew that is creamy but not overly rich. Tender chicken breast chunks render the soup a hearty first course.

The second soup stars wintermelon, an Asian vegetable that resembles a small watermelon with white flesh that turns translucent and soft when cooked. It has a clean, neutral taste and fibrous texture. The wintermelon morsels swim with tiny threads of ham, which lend a needed dose of salt.

An appetizer sampler includes a pair of crunchy vegetable spring rolls, jumbo fried prawns, cold, thinly sliced beef with a zingy, gelatinous sauce and brazen, peanutty noodles topped with cabbage slaw. The platter warms up your appetite without killing it.

Hunan lamb is not listed on the menu, but your waiter may recommend it if you express interest in the similarly prepared Hunan pork. The spicy black bean sauce forms a glaze for tender strips of lamb, its heat gaining momentum as you work through the dish, without pummeling your taste buds.

Seafood with fried tofu is the most successful of the claypot entrees. The lively mix of scallops, prawns, artfully sliced calamari, onions, tomatoes, potatoes and black mushrooms caramelizes as it cooks in the trapped heat of a ceramic pot. The calamari is a bit tough, a contrast made more pronounced by the other juicy fruits of the sea. And meaty black mushrooms have a pungent, acrid flavor that isn't to everyone's liking.

Seafood entrees in general are a treat at Sungari Pearl, but the prawn and scallop choices are a much better value than specials featuring Australian lobster, which run about $40 to $50. Less flavorful than Atlantic lobster, it's not worth the expense no matter how meltingly tender the meat. Lightly battered and sautŽed with ginger and scallion, the bland lobster doesn't stand a chance next to piquant strips of ginger.

While Sungari Pearl satisfies cravings for favorites like General Tso's chicken and twice-cooked pork, it excels at injecting adventure back into Chinese dining. The witty waiters lavish attention on guests in a manner that is genuine, not smothering, making suggestions that are truly thoughtful.

Like most Asian restaurants, dessert is not a priority, but there is one stellar confection that is not to be missed. Half-inch banana slices are battered and fried Ñ making their insides gooey and sugary Ñ and complemented by vanilla ice cream studded with candied ginger. That's just one of the refined details that elevates Sungari Pearl into a league of its own.