September 13, 2013

First Look at Empire Chinese Kitchen

Prof. A. and I checked out the new Empire last night - now Empire Chinese Kitchen. The Empire Dine and Dance was previously a bar... that had food? All I remember is a $5 burger, bourbon, and beer special. 

The new menu is a return to the cuisine that was served out of the space from 1916-1953. Empire was originally a 'chop suey joint' with a two-story neon "Chop Suey" sign that was recently discovered to have inspired Hopper's painting of the same name (see this Portland magazine article for the story). 

The space has been completely redone - where I previously thought of Empire as dark and dank, it's been lightened up with lots of blonde wood, hanging jade plants, and minimalist table settings. 

I found my cute friend Ian tending bar - a pleasant surprise! 

At 6pm, the restaurant was filling with people "of my generation" as Prof. A. put it, and we were sat at a table in the window with a banquette (covered in the mostly delightfully rubbable fabric). Our server brought us a pot of jasmine tea, and I copied A.'s wine order of an Austrian Gruner Veltliner, which was not something I was familiar with, and I really enjoyed it. 

We started with two small plates: an Empire eggroll ($5), local beef pastrami with cabbage and asparagus, served with a honey mustard sauce and garlic green beans ($5), with roasted garlic and daikon, but more I think like ginger and hot peppers. Both were good, but the garlic green beans were the favorite. 

From the dim sum menu, we ordered pork dumplings ($5), char siu bao ($5), and a sticky rice pocket ($4). A second round of ordering brought us Peking Duck Buns ($7) and spinach dumplings ($5). 

Pork Dumplings
So here I feel I must say a few things about Chinese food - I think we have all gotten over the, it's good, you know, for American-Chinese food (said with a sniff like we've all just gotten back from eating lotus leaf rice and turnip cakes abroad). We have Americanized Chinese cuisine here, and some of it is better than others. I think we can all also agree that it's not very good in Maine (OK, we will not all agree on that, but please don't try to argue your case with me). While I have not lived in New York City or eaten in Chinatown, I still have found better Chinese takeout food places in other states. 

That said, I've never had dim sum. So my experiences in Maine of steamed buns at Pai Men Miyake and bao in Boston's Chinatown and NYC with Original Roomie A. were my first. I have no personal yardstick for this type of food. So if I tell you this food is good, and you go in and are all, this has got nothing on Mission Chinese? You're on your own. But the food is good and the menu shows real promise. 

Char Sui Bao
Even so, there were a few small things that Empire could work on, but I trust that they will improve. Overall, my impression of the food was very positive and combined with the location, the atmosphere, and the great bar (and bartender, obvi), I'm sure Empire will make many people very happy. 

Peking Duck Buns

And in case you were wondering, as I was, yes, that industrial ladies room is unchanged - some painted stalls and maybe some new fixtures, but the exposed brick and warehouse feel is still there.