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Double delight; Two menus aim to please diners at unpretentious place

You're spoiled for choice at the Golden Duck, a restaurant modestly (maybe a little too modestly) tucked behind a gas station at the corner of Maple and Ayer roads.

You can also be confused, because there are two separate menus.

One menu is fairly standard, and the food is well prepared; the other menu is a little more exotic. Plus, if you happen to walk into this unpretentious place on weekends between noon and 3 p.m., you can partake of dim sum or Mongolian barbecue. Of course, if you happen to be a real foodie, like most of the people I know, this hardly presents a problem.

We ordered from both menus on our last visit -- a little like ordering from the Group A and Group B columns in the Chinese restaurants of old. The regular menu (traditional?) supplied our first courses.

Hot and Sour Seafood Soup ($6.75) distinguishes itself on the listing with the usual red print to denote heat. And believe me, this time the restaurant is not kidding about the "hot." We could see the flakes of red pepper afloat in the silken broth, and a couple of times quickly reached for the (very fresh) fried noodles to alleviate the pain. There was shrimp aplenty, too.

The menu tells you that one serving is enough for two, but don't be fooled. One serving can easily feed four people.

We ordered an egg roll ($1.45) just to check in. Nothing special there, but the Steamed Dumplings (eight for $4.95) were terrific. Plumply, oh-so-plumply filled half-moons of dough served right in the steamer, they were a delight -- and much superior to the egg roll.

Now the Other Menu came into play. It is big on what the house calls "casseroles," meaning that the food is presented in a great big, deep bowl.

One intriguing listing was Taro with Salty Duck ($8.95), but when we ordered it, the waiter shook his head. We couldn't quite figure out if they were out of it or if he simply thought we wouldn't like it.

Of course, he looked dubious, too, when we ordered another casserole called Chicken Eggplant with Salty Fish Flavor ($9.95), but this time we persisted.

We were glad we did. This dish, again served more than amply, was a wondrous thing. Dark brown sauce without a strong fish flavor (similar to the Vietnamese nuoc mam condiment made from fermented anchovies that adds richness rather than fishiness) came with loads of Asian eggplant and lots of chicken. It was a big success.

Other so-called casseroles include Roast Pork and Bean Curd, Beef with Double Winter Vegetables and Beef with Black Pepper Sauce, all in a similar price range. My advice: Go ahead, try one, or many -- be daring.

Also on this Other Menu is a good selection of fish and seafood: A whole Fried Flounder with Ginger and Scallions ($19.95), Sea Bass (not whole) with Minced Pork and Soybeans ($24.95) and Calamari with Pickled Cabbage ($9.95).

Speaking of vegetables, note the good selection of stir-fries, including Stir-Fried Pea Shoot Greens with Garlic ($10.95). All of this is not to say that you won't find some goodies on the traditional menu. Crispy Sesame Scallops are there, deep-fried before being stir-fried ($15.95) and the poetic Four Stars Around the Moon (scallops, roast pork, breaded chicken and butterfly shrimp with mixed vegetables, $14.95).

We could go on: Sesame Chicken ($11.75). And Orange Beef ($14.95), and, for the followers of General Tso, his very own chicken ($11.75). These old favorites are loved for a reason.

Fresh oranges for dessert come with the meal. Nothing else is necessary.

e-mail: janiceokun@yahoo.com

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GOLDEN DUCK    

3 stars (out of 4)    

WHERE: 1840 Maple Road, Amherst (639-8888); www.goldenduckrestaurant.com. There are two menus, one a little more adventuresome than the other; also, dim sum and Mongolian barbecue on weekends. Credit Cards: American Express, Mastercard, Visa    

FAVORITE DISH: Hot and Sour Seafood Soup    

NEEDS WORK: Food is of good quality.    

PRICE RANGE: Most entrees start at $5. Three-course Lunch Special from $5.25.    

SERVICE: Good    

HOURS: Seven days, 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; dim sum, weekends, noon to 3 p.m.    

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes    

PARKING: In the plaza.    

RATINGS: Stars reflect the overall dining experience at the time of The News' visit -- including service, ambience, innovation and cost.

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