“What kind of tea do you have?”
The question flummoxes our otherwise cocky waiter. “Definitely black,” he says. “I can check.”
“What about green?”
It’s as if my friend is the first person to ask for tea at a place called Empire Asian Restaurant & Lounge. And perhaps she is. The vast establishment on the South Boston Waterfront looks like a luxe dim sum hall (the folks at Empire Garden in Chinatown must be peeved at the name choice). But the request for tea tidily illustrates just how much it’s not one. “Yum cha,” another way to say “dim sum,” means “drink tea” in Cantonese. There ought to be a corresponding phrase meaning “drink booze” for a certain breed of Asian-themed nightclub cum restaurant. A key to recognizing you’re in one: Count the lanterns, Buddha statues, foo dogs, and dragons around you. Are there more than 10? Are there lychee martinis? Would the music be at home in a Euro disco? Chances are good.
Big Night Entertainment Group specializes in such venues, with Empire joining sister establishments Red Lantern in Back Bay and Shrine at MGM Grand Foxwoods. (Number of lanterns at the new place: infinite. You’ll see what I mean when you go.) One has to hand it to the restaurant group. American diners don’t like to pay a lot for Asian food (we make something of an exception for sushi, perhaps because a higher price point reassures us, rightly or not, that our raw fish is being handled properly). And liquor generally accounts for a lower percentage of sales at Asian restaurants. How to offer this food and still make money? Big Night finds a business model that seems to work. Some get sniffy about places like Empire not being “authentic” — whatever that means in a global era, where culinary influences spread as rapidly as any form of data. It might be useful to think of them, instead, as giving a new and wider audience a taste for Asian flavors. The bros at the table next to us certainly seem stoked. Mostly, the people who eat at Empire are not the people who eat at Empire Garden, and that’s just fine — particularly when each Asian restaurant and lounge Big Night opens improves upon the last.
Which is to say, at least some of the food at Empire tastes like what one might find at a restaurant in Chinatown, where it would cost less, come without the club ambience, and not be served by a beautiful blonde whose waitressing skills would fit in at the city’s finest restaurants.
For instance, there is a wonderful rendition of salt and pepper calamari, tender squid in a light and crisp batter, interspersed with fat slices of chili. Singapore street noodles feature thin pasta tossed with shrimp, scallops, and pork, flavored with curry spices. A fairly bland version is offered at Red Lantern. Empire’s is happily fiery.
Thai scallop soup takes on tom kha with success, a thin yet rich broth flavored with coconut milk, lemon grass, kaffir lime, and ginger-like galangal. Again, there is real heat here, welcome and nuanced. Chicken and mushroom dumplings are available seared, or steamed in mild and fragrant chicken broth, a comforting cousin of wonton soup.
Most of the dishes at Empire are less true to the cuisines that inspire them. There are some kitschy riffs on American Chinese favorites. Lobster scallion pancakes have orange bits in them that might be lobster but don’t impart much taste. Still, these are really good scallion pancakes, and they are served with a radicchio salad and coconut-lime crema that blend together to create a lovely Southeast Asian slaw. A platter divided between lobster and crab rangoons leaves one guessing which is which. The predominant flavor is cream cheese, a disappointment given the fine frying job. And steamed buns wrapped around a shiitake mushroom filling are dry, not fluffy.
The cuisine of Vietnam should feel insulted. Dull fresh rolls filled with grilled beef cry out for seasoning. And the “24-hour secret broth” in a dish of pho lacks all the depth found in bowls at any mom-and-pop spot.
As for Japan, there are sushi rolls, from the traditional to the decidedly not: A “fish & chips” roll incorporates tempura cod, malt vinegar mayo, and potato “crispies,” for instance. Likewise, Empire offers a fine selection of sake, from the high-end to the affordable, as well as a selection of Asian and domestic beer. Then there are big, fruity cocktails that serve four, with names like Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon, as well as more-restrained potions such as a lemongrass gimlet or Suntory old fashioned. (Do you spot the lychee martini? Yes, you do.)
There’s also a nice wine list, often with markups to match, in case anyone has an expense account anymore. That 2006 Heitz Cellars “Martha’s Vineyard” cabernet sauvignon would probably pair well with the more-steakhouse-like section of the menu, offering cuts of beef in tangentially Asian preparations. (Did they import the masseuse for the “Korean rubbed sirloin”?) Smoky ribs coated in chili, miso, sake, and brown sugar go well with Napa cabbage slaw, although the accompanying stuffed tomato confounds, ripped right off a Brit’s breakfast plate.
Miso is used to fine effect again with a Cornish hen marinated in the salty paste; it seems to brine the meat, which is tender and juicy. The bird is served carved and put back together with chunks of crisp potato.
Dessert isn’t a focus in Asia. Empire puts some thought into the course. Servers are pushing a cake special hard; a tower of layers coated in chocolate, with the faintest hint of soy, it’s a crowd-pleaser. I’m more appreciative of a (slightly soggy) yuzu shortcake because of the tart and refreshing granita that comes alongside. Best yet are star anise-scented Munchkins with warm centers, combining the best of doughnut holes and gingerbread.
They would be great with tea.