It wasn't until I sipped my first spoonful of Szechuan-style hot and sour soup that I took a second look around the small interior of the Sampan. Not only had the liveliness of the spices awakened my taste buds, but I also sensed the harmony of the uncluttered dining area which matched the modest menu and colorful appetizers we had just sampled.

This was a restaurant that seemed to have all its essential elements in place. The dining area, highlighted with white walls and a large mirror, barely seats 40. Clear glass-topped tables, white china and fresh flowers underscore the motif of simplicity.Nor is the menu cluttered with those seemingly endless and often frustrating pages of Chinese dishes that are usually variations on one or two preparation styles. It is an easily read page with just enough familiar and novel items to please either the chow mein fan or aficionado drawn to more novel dishes.

If the entrees were going to be anything like the soup and the lovely steamed four-star steamed dim sum dumplings ($4.25), with each point filled with various fillings, including peas, chopped mushrooms and seasoned ground pork, we knew we were in for a treat. And except for one rather ordinary dish, the half dozen dishes we sampled were wonderful.

Two of the seven "Chef's suggestions" were delicious. The black bean chicken ($6.95) was just spicy enough. Large chunks of crunchy green pepper, white onion and bok choy contrasted nicely with the tender chicken. The strawberry chicken ($7.95) also utilized tender chicken pieces though this time the sauce was slightly sweet with small pieces of fresh pineapple and halved strawberries.

The Sampan Favorite Pork, ($6.95) featured an orange sauce that was pale in both color and flavor; the slices of pork were also on the chewy side. It was the only disappointment.

More care was displayed with the shrimp lo-mein ($6.25), thin and not oily pan-fried noodles loaded with juicy shrimp. The moo shu pork ($6.25), rolled table-side by one of the waiters, was a flavorful blend of shredded pork, tree ear mushrooms, chopped tiger lilies and scallions, mixed with scrambled egg.

The BoBo Platter ($8.95), an appetizer sampler for two, allowed us to try some of the other specials, including egg rolls, fried won tons, paper (actually foil) wrapped chicken, fried shrimp, barbecued pork and spare ribs. The latter were so good we had to order another order (4 for $4.25). They were especially meaty and were served with a choice of either plum or Hoisin sauce.

The half dozen potstickers and won ton soup were also nicely prepared. Each of the dishes we tried were generous in size and served steaming hot.

Other items featured on the reasonable bill of fare include Mongolian beef, sweet and sour pork, cashew chicken, moo goo gai pan, lemon chicken (each $6.75); shrimp with lobster sauce ($6.95), several Szechuan dishes as well as chicken curry, egg foo yong, yang chow fried rice and Buddha supreme.

In addition to the other "Chef's Suggestions" already mentioned, Sampan recommends the fresh seafood sizzling platter ($8.95), princess chicken (with pineapple and lychees, $7.95), and prawns and scallops "in a love nest of flavors" ($8.95). Family combination dinners are priced from $6 to $8.

If some of the dishes sound familiar to regulars who frequent the HoHo on South State, it is no coincidence. Sampan's owner, Peter Sum, who spent 10 years with HoHo, is now striking out on his own. From our recent experience it is a move that will benefit lovers of Chinese cuisine.

Rating: * * * *

Sampan Chinese Restaurant, Plaza 721 (Northwest corner of 2100 S. and 700 East), 467-FOOD. Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. until 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday until midnight; Sunday until 3 p.m. Ten percent discount for take-out orders; fax orders 467-3689. Reservations accepted for parties of six or more. Delivery service for limited area. Accepts major credit cards and check with guarantee card.

- NOTE: The Upper Crust, 1412 S. Foothill Drive, one of our favorite lunch eateries, is now open for dinner on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings. Dinner is served from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday; until 10 p.m. on Saturday.