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ORIENT KITCHEN

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Behind an unassuming front on Baum Boulevard, the Orient Kitchen is serving some of the more unusual Chinese dishes in town. Inside, the converted house is decorated simply -- light yellow walls, pink and green chairs and panels of etched glass that serve as room dividers. The anteroom contains a small sushi bar with a half-dozen stools, a bar, a glass case in which hang cooked ducks, and several tanks holding live fish. I looked away. I never have enough nerve to confront the creature I might be eating, but I appreciate that "fresh" means "just caught in the other room."

The menu here has dozens of selections, and many offer intriguing or less common ingredients like abalone, conch, fresh snails, jellyfish and sea cucumber (not a vegetable, but as I can recall from grade-school aquarium visits, a quite unfortunate-looking aquatic creature).

I was eager to try something totally new to me, so off the list of mostly familiar appetizers I ordered the "imperior chicken." When it arrived, I was initially disappointed: It looked like a plate of plain chicken. The chicken had been steamed or poached, and was served skinless and chilled, with a sauce of ground ginger and scallions.

It also appeared to be about half a chicken, though the meat had been cleaved right through the bones and it was difficult to recognize the traditional Western cuts -- thigh, leg, breast. Regardless, there was plenty of tender meat. It was an appetizer that was light and refreshing for a warm evening -- as familiar as plain chicken can be yet made exotic by the sharp fresh ginger dressing.

Besides the standard wonton and egg drop soups found in most Chinese restaurants, the Orient Kitchen offers a dozen others including seaweed and bean curd; winter melon; and dry scallop (presumably these are dried scallops). Most of the more exotic soups are for two, and we agreed on pork with pickled mustard.

It was indeed a large bowl -- it would have made a meal for one -- and our waitress dispensed servings into two smaller bowls. While the menu had noted it was "hot and spicy," I found it to be only about "lively" on the heat scale. In a light broth were pieces of pork, scallions, large sliced mushrooms, and snow peas; by process of elimination, the remaining greenish-brown irregularly sized strips had to be the pickled mustard. Once sampled there was no mistaking their provenance: slightly crunchy, salty and sharp with the flavors of vinegar, mustard and cabbage (of which the mustard green is a family member). The soup was well packed, so each spoonful brought another pleasing combination of ingredients.

My companion was less adventurous, ordering the roasted pork appetizer, while insisting that only in Chinese restaurants can one find those sweet slices of pork coated in near-fluorescent reddish glaze. He was right: Our waitress delivered a full-sized plate of sliced pork, still a little fatty, but bathed in a sugary, smoky sauce. Despite the quantity, we quickly cleaned that plate of succulent candied pork.

Our entrees weren't nearly as adventurous though we had only ourselves to blame. I had panicked at the last second -- still overwhelmed by the choices -- and had blurted out "Hunan pork." Mostly I was attracted to the little red chili pepper by its name; I was still looking for something spicy. My companion fell back on a favorite -- braised duck. The entrees are served family-style here, arriving when cooked and meant to be shared by all. The duck dish could have been shared by four -- this was half a duck, cut into big meaty chunks, covered in vegetables (carrots, peas and full mushrooms). Later, beneath the duck, we discovered a large portion of bok choy. The entire platter though was a-swim in brown sauce, which was just thick and flavorless enough to overwhelm the vegetables; the duck, with its natural strong flavors enhanced through braising, held its own.

The Hunan pork was also a bit too "saucy" for my tastes, but there was a generous amount of sliced pork, far outnumbering the accompanying vegetables (carrots, broccoli, bamboo shoots and water chestnuts). The remains of two dried red peppers were also in the mix, but this dish also wasn't very "hot and spicy." (A couple more chili peppers would have done the trick, and spicy food fans may want to request additional heat when ordering.) Both entrees were enormous; we could have easily split either of them and possibly still have had leftovers.

The check came with a plate of fresh sliced oranges, always a nice, simple and refreshing close to a meal. The waitress reminded us to come back. After a parting glance at the unsuspecting fish idling in their tanks, I thought, perhaps next time I'll give that poor sea cucumber a chance. * * 1/2

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