Your Guide to Legin

This legendary Chinese restaurant offers hundreds of items on the menu, but you don't need to try them all unless you want to.

When you confront a menu of some 250 items, deciding what to choose for dinner is more daunting than Napoleon's plotting his assault on Russia. The ever-mysterious Chinese menu writers don't help: What is Eight Treasures Duck, or Geoduck "Two Course"? Will "Sizzling Happy Family" make your own content? When the list ranges from the utterly mundane (the Po-Po platter, with spring rolls and fried wontons) to the heart-stoppingly exotic (sea cucumber with Triple Delight), what's a person to do?

Because I think Legin may be the best Chinese restaurant in the city, and I go there with metronomic regularity, I've worked my way through a sizable portion of the menu, and I'm here to give you my findings. But don't be afraid to explore the vast reaches of the holdings; you may discover such intriguing delights as "Sauteed Frog" (just the legs), fried crispy quail and an array of hot pots, including roast pork and oyster (surf and turf if you live in Hangchou).

Legin's immense central room is open only for the spectacular dim sum brunches, and it's a space which, when filled with Chinese families out for their Sunday meal, is noisy and bustling like similar places in Hong Kong. You won't get intimacy, tranquility or romantic mood here--the lights are bright enough to direct planes onto the runways at PDX. The constant motion of the dim sum carts will produce serious salivating, and if you get there close to noon, when the action heats up, you'll be well-rewarded. In addition to the usual run of shrimp, beef and pork dumplings, there will be sweet clams on the half shell, giant oysters with toasted sesame seeds and black bean sauce, tea-flavored sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves, and tender slabs of duck surrounded by sautéed onions. You'll likely spot someone wheeling a cart of ducks hanging from hooks, reminding one of the workers who push racks of clothes through NYC's garment district. You'll want at least one vegetable to complement all the protein: I suggest a heaping platter of Chinese broccoli ($8), crunchy, sweet, and sporting little white flowers--a thing of aesthetic virtue. If Bush père hated broccoli, it's because he never tried the Chinese variety, even though he was ambassador to Beijing.

When you enter Legin there's a tank of fish in a rainbow of colors: golden speckled carp, tangerine koi. In Hong Kong you'd point, and within minutes that fish would appear at your table, steamed with ginger and green onions. Here, unfortunately, the fish are merely decor. But just beyond the entrance are tanks clotted with lobsters and crabs, and they can be your dinner. On a nearby board, written in multicolored inks in English, Cantonese and Vietnamese, you'll find the fish of the day, Legin's "fresh sheet." I'd recommend scallops in the shell ($14.50), huge bivalves showered with fried garlic, rice noodles and black bean sauce, each bite hot and succulent. The waiter's explanation of the geoduck two course (seasonally priced) stalled us at "sliced meat with chef in special sauce," but no matter; the usually tough muscle (which looks more like a miniature elephant's trunk than what everyone says it resembles) was so thinly--almost translucently--sliced that each morsel resembled wavy lotus flowers and almost disappeared on the tongue. Accompanying this fragile pleasure was a platter of sautéed geoduck, sweet and salty at once. The geoduck is so huge a clam that it cannot even stuff itself into its shell; when you taste Legin's treatment, you'll be just like the bivalve, so enthusiastic that you too will never clam up. You know that someone in the kitchen is treating these creatures with respect.

Legin does splendid things with its duck dishes. On a recent outing we decided to keep duck flowing through the meal, beginning with shredded duck with orange soup ($9). The stock is rich and the fowl plentiful in the broth, and since the waiters tend to bring dishes fast upon one another, we treated this soup more like a drink than a first course. The highlight was Eight Treasures Duck ($13.50 half or $24 whole), a platter of pork, shrimp, and scallops surrounding a huge breast of duck in the middle; it lay there like an immense queen bee, with the other items paying respect to this centerpiece. The meat was moist, deeply flavorful and meltingly soft, almost like an enormous lobe of foie gras.

Another poultry item not to be missed is salted chicken, Tungkong style ($9 half, $16.50 whole). Those lucky Tungkonese. The chicken is skinned and boiled, but your grandmother never treated her chicken with such care; a thrillingly ample portion spills over the platter, and you dip the pieces in a sauce that's salty and full of minced shallots.

Among the best dishes on the entire menu is the shrimp with honey-pepper sauce ($14.50). The shrimp are large, iodine-fresh and crisp, and they're doused with a remarkably complex, vibrant sauce that's both sweet and spicy at once. And then there's the sea cucumber. They are usually dried and reconstituted, then sliced into cross sections. They have a slippery texture, which makes them go down very easily, and their taste is bland and mild. Try them with the floppy, delicate black mushrooms ($18) and you'll be fulfilled. The sea cucumber normally leads a quiet life on the sea bottom, but once in a while, when it is agitated, it possesses the curious habit of suddenly ejecting all its internal organs, which regrow in a few short weeks. Frankly, I could not tell whether I was getting my cucumber with or without its stomach, but it was ultimately a matter of some indifference to me.

Legin is an adventure. You won't catch its full flavor until you've been there day and night. You don't need to try all 250 dishes to find out how good it is, but trying to be a completist here would be a fulfilling enterprise.

Legin Restaurant
8001 SE Division St., 777-2828
Open 11 am-midnight Sunday- Thursday, 11 am-2 am Friday- Saturday. Dim sum only 10 am-3 pm daily. Credit cards accepted. Children welcome. $-$$

Fresh seafood items, all clay pots, scallops in shell, shrimp with honey-pepper sauce, sizzling diced beef, salted chicken, shredded duck soup with orange, eight treasures duck

Nice touches: Fish tanks brimming with crab and lobsters, huge noisy families at Sunday brunch.