Peking Gallery

12203 Viers Mill Rd., Wheaton

929-0234

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Prices: Most dinner entrees $6 to $9.

Credit Cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa.

Peking Gallery is not the kind of Chinese restaurant where you can order anything and be satisfied. The biggest problem is the sauces, many of which are over-thickened with cornstarch and dully flavored, dragging down what would otherwise be excellent dishes. But there also are some marvelous items here -- enough of them to make a visit more than worthwhile.

Peking Gallery has other virtues too. It's a big, handsome place, with widely spaced tables, soft lighting, comfortable seating. The service has been excellent, the presentation of the dishes lovely and the portions generous. And the prices are low -- in fact some of the best items in the house are also the best buys.

To begin with, "my own" soup is outstanding. A clear, bright chicken broth with creamy, fluffy tofu, fresh tomato, mushrooms, snow peas, seaweed and egg, this gem of a soup is delicate yet incisively seasoned, each flavor light but distinct. The san-shien wor bar soup is lovely too, with a meaty broth, moist chicken and beef, lively vegetables and crisp rice.

When it comes to dumpling appetizers, you can choose from four varieties, all good: fried or steamed, meat or vegetarian. The fried ones are done exceptionally well, a little crisp on the surface and free of excess oil. As to the fillings, the vegetarian version, with a lovely mixture of minced vegetables, has a slight edge. Sidestep the spring rolls, which have nice wrappers but bland, mushy fillings.

A standout at Peking Gallery -- and an outstanding buy at $7.95 -- is the yuling chicken, an entire big bird that's marinated in spices, steamed, then fried. The result is marvelously crackly skin and succulent, tender meat. The yuling sauce, a thin, pungent soy vinaigrette with a salt-tart flavor, gives the chicken just the right punch, nicely permeating the dark meat. There's also a version without sauce at the same price called crispy chicken. Although both are winners, we prefer the added zip of the yuling version (Note that there's a yuling duck too).

Another beauty is the Peking duck, its meat moist and tender and its skin -- carefully trimmed of fat -- nicely crisp.

Still another top dish is the crispy whole fish, a beautiful sea bass with a wonderfully crackly skin, sweet and fresh-tasting, and flesh that separates from the bone in big, snowy chunks. The sauce is delightful, a sweet-tart-hot blend with diced green pepper, carrot and onion.

The shrimp and scallops have been excellent, plump, fresh-tasting, generously portioned and reasonably priced. But choose your sauce carefully. The kung pao sauce has been nicely balanced and not over-thickened, so it's a safe bet. (The kung pao chicken is a nice rendition too.) But the black bean and garlic sauces are dull, brown, heavily cornstarched gravies in which the black beans and garlic seem like afterthoughts.

The fried rice is unusually well prepared, fluffy and not oily. The bean curd too has been excellent, with a beautifully fluffy texture. But, like so many others, the bean curd dishes suffer from the dull, brown sauce syndrome.