Not the stuff of legend, but it's enchanting



China Legend, in the Enchanted Forest Shopping Center, has long been a reliable takeout choice for my family. But with my sister visiting (and a review to write), the time had come to actually sit down for a meal in the dining room.

"This is enchanting," said my sister, playing off the name of the shopping center as we walked in the front door and past a vestibule with a small, tinkling fountain. I told her that the shopping center, named for the now-defunct Enchanted Forest amusement park, was the thing that was supposed to be enchanting. China Legend should be, well, legendary.

But actually, she was right. It was kind of enchanting. I remembered the interior as dark and uninviting, but in the past year, a new owner, Chad Fong, has substantially revamped the space. Now, it's bright and spacious, with white tablecloths, artwork on the walls, and even soft music.

Though Fong and his partner, Sandra Walters, upgraded the dining area, they kept the chef, Jian Xue, and the menu, which is good news if you like classic American-style Chinese fare, including General Tso's chicken ($9.95), vegetable lo mein ($7.95), Szechuan beef ($8.95), egg rolls ($3 for 2) and the like.

Looking for something special to celebrate my sister's visit, my eyes scanned the menu and settled on a gorgeous photo of a whole lobster, meat half-removed from the shell, sprinkled with ginger and scallions. When I ordered it, though, I was told the restaurant didn't actually serve lobster - the photo was just there to make the menu look pretty.

We were told, however, that the Peking duck ($22.95) on the menu was, in fact, available. We weren't in the mood for it, though. (Plus, it would have busted the budget pretty much instantaneously.) Instead, we stuck to the classics and found most of them to be satisfactory, in that high-sodium, addictive Chinese-restaurant way we all know so well.

Steamed dumplings ($4.50 for six) were filled with a dense, gingery pork mixture that didn't overpower the tenderness of the wrappers, and the Szechuan chicken ($8.95), loaded with colorful vegetables and strips of tender chicken, rewarded the eater with blasts of genuine cayenne heat. We tried a vegetable-only moo shi instead of the more popular pork or chicken variations, and enjoyed the smoky taste of the vegetables, though we agreed that the plum sauce was too thin, both in flavor and texture.

We were also puzzled by the cold sesame noodles ($3.95), an appetizer that arrived with a giant - and unnecessary - glob of too-sweet sesame paste atop the noodles. We took the glob off, and the noodles tasted just fine.

We couldn't decide between two dishes we had never tried before, General Tso's shrimp ($12.95) or China Legend shrimp ($12.95). Both were described on the menu as having deep-fried shrimp, but the China Legend had a "unique flavor sauce," while the General Tso's shrimp had no description.

Our server recommended the General Tso's, but we were disappointed. The dish was little more than battered, deep-fried shrimp, sitting in a pool of the same sauce that's found on General Tso's chicken. But the thing that makes the chicken dish so justly famous is the way the flavor is shellacked onto each piece of meat. There was no such melding of flavors here.

I had one other minor complaint. When we said we wanted to take our leftovers home, our waiter simply brought us foam boxes, instead of wrapping the food himself. We wound up leaving our various sauces behind for lack of the proper containers.

Still, I'm sure we'll be back. It's nice to have a Chinese restaurant nearby that's more than a takeout counter. China Legend may not be the stuff of legend, but it fills a niche in Ellicott City.

China Legend

Where: 10040 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City

Call: 410-750-8880

Open: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.

Credit cards: All major

Prices: Appetizers, $1.50-$9.95, entrees $5.95-$13.95

Food: ** 1/2 (two stars and half star)

Service: **1/2 (two stars and half star)

Atmosphere: *** (three stars)

Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *

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