Tuesday, May 27, 2014

This Empire Truly Strikes Back

Big Night Entertainment Group follows a simply philosophy with its restaurants – go big in both atmosphere and cuisine – or go home. Like Back Bay’s Red Lantern and MGM Grand Foxwood’s Shrine restaurants before it, Empire delivers on both fronts. Conveniently located on South Boston’s Waterfront, this eatery provided one of the most enjoyable dining experiences I’ve had in quite some time. In all honesty, I was struck by how consistently good everything was.

Starting with Empire’s modern, hip ambience. Yes, there’s the obligatory (yet really, really cool) expansive, illuminated bar, complete with light techno music, cushy lounge seating, and scantily clad, affable bartenders who craft potent fruity cocktails. It’s been said that if one looks closely enough, a celebrity or two may be spotted. Yes, there are lots of well-groomed diners either viewing others or waiting to be seen themselves. Empire’s atmosphere also playfully nods to Asia, particularly with its large dining room resembling an open dim sum hall that can likely be seen only blocks away in nearby Chinatown. Several smaller, private dining rooms extend to the back.

The Asian-inspired cuisine is consistently very good, sometimes stellar. Most dishes are thoughtfully served in half portions as well as larger ones, the perfect way to share several tapas-style with groups. Singapore street noodles (bowl is $25 and large enough to feed four; a large bowl is $44) include thin pasta with shrimp, scallops, and pork, along with a Madra curry spice that supplies a welcomed touch of hear. A hot app includes nicely seared chicken & mushroom dumplings (eight piece $12, 16 piece at $22), that possess chewy texture and just the right amount of crunch. Fried starters include a large assortment of Empire tempura vegetables ($15) that feature nicely battered onions, broccoli, and even sweet potato, accompanied by unique white miso aioli and citrus ponzu sauce for dipping pleasure (I prefer the latter for its acidity), along with steamed, slightly salted edamame.

Lobster and crab rangoons (6 piece $16, 12 piece $30) are so beautifully fried and presented that you may not want to bite into them. If you do, however, you’ll be handsomely rewarded by the mixture of meat with cream cheese along with an innovative topping of sweet soy molasses and Chinese plumb sauce, intended to be the restaurant’s riff on traditional duck sauce. My lone complaint: had the server not identified the lobster from the crab, I would have had difficulty differentiating between the flavors of the fish (again, delicious nonetheless). Eight sushi come with the Red Dragon roll ($18), consisting of blue fin tuna, daikon sprouts, sake, and red chili miso that lends the dish its heat. One dish that surprisingly had the entire table fawning over it, wishing we had ordered an entire tureen – was the addictive Bin’s Hot & Sour Soup ($8 individual, $27 for the tureen), which contained mushrooms, tofu, pork broth, white pepper and chili sesame oil – all of which provided the perfect blend of heat, acidity and warm comfort.

Well-prepared cocktails were a nice complement to the wonderful food. A pineapple mai tai for 2 ($24) is nothing more than your traditional beverage, only with lots more liquor and playfully served in a frozen pineapple. For the more adventurous drinker, the rye tai ($14) is a must as well. Lighter drinks also fare well, including the peartini ($14) mixed with pear sake and rum, while the refreshing Coco Dojo ($13) includes coconut, pear sake, pineapple, and soda. A group of four women celebrating their friend’s 50th birthday tackle the rightfully named Big Kahuna ($68), consisting of grey goose punch served in a mammoth watermelon (dry ice makes for an eye-opening presentation) along with watermelon juice, mint and ginger.

Non-traditional desserts are also first rate, including the most popular menu option according to our server, a chocolate macadamia nut tart ($11). What sounds pedestrian proves to be quite the opposite: six miniature slices of dense, buttery chocolate drizzled with brown butter caramel and with sweet chili cooked into the tart to provide subtle bite. Equally decadent are the ethereal, gooey sticky toffee donuts along with a special of fried apricot dumplings paired with creamy raspberry sorbet.

Servers are knowledgeable, gracious, and prompt, while the meal’s methodical pacing across several dishes was pitch-perfect.

Empire delivers exceptional atmosphere, service, and cuisine. I followed Big Night Entertainment Group’s motto to a T, with one exception – I went big (on food), but after such a wonderful dining experience, begrudgingly went home.

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