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Empire Chinese Kitchen

Empire Chinese Kitchen

Have to say that I went to Empire with great expectations. Now, that doesn’t always lead me to disappointment. But, Empire fell flat. It certainly is better than what generally passes for Chinese food in Maine, and may well be the best Chinese restaurant in the Portland area, but my son and I sampled far and wide on the menu — we were very hungry — and found the food, as a whole, to suffer from a uniformity of flavoring that made one thing blend into the next, and with a little too much grease overall for both of our palates. Nothing we ate gave either of us any great interest in returning. All I could think of in writing this comment, in fact, was an amazing Chinese restaurant nestled in a small industrial city north of Dublin, Ireland, to which I would return in a heartbeat, which is to say that location hardly needs to be a constraint, and I’m hopeful that the apparent financial success of Empire Chinese Kitchen telegraphs to the world that there is a demand for at least the promise of great Chinese food.
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Empire Chinese Kitchen

David1225 Have to say that I went to Empire with great expectations. Now, that doesn’t always lead me to disappointment. But, Empire fell flat. It certainly is better than what generally passes for Chinese food in Maine, and may well be the best Chinese restaurant in the Portland area, but my son and I sampled far and wide on the menu — we were very hungry — and found the food, as a whole, to suffer from a uniformity of flavoring that made one thing blend into the next, and with a little too much grease overall for both of our palates. Nothing we ate gave either of us any great interest in returning. All I could think of in writing this comment, in fact, was an amazing Chinese restaurant nestled in a small industrial city north of Dublin, Ireland, to which I would return in a heartbeat, which is to say that location hardly needs to be a constraint, and I’m hopeful that the apparent financial success of Empire Chinese Kitchen telegraphs to the world that there is a demand for at least the promise of great Chinese food.

Empire Chinese Kitchen

Once the site of Portland’s first deluxe Chinese Restaurant, The Empire (1916-1953), our doors are open once again to serve authentic Chinese food of the finest quality. Our kitchen specializes in Dim Sum, a style of Chinese brunch comprised of delectable dumplings and savory small dishes meant to be leisurely eaten family-style. The menu also features traditional and modern Chinese soul food, sourced locally, taking advantage of Maine’s amazing natural offerings. We invite you to join us in the true spirit of Dim Sum, to have a nourishing meal in the company of friends and family.
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I am the Emperor, and I want dumplings!” -Ferdinand I Once the site of Portland’s first deluxe Chinese Restaurant, The Empire (1916-1953), our doors are open once again to serve authentic Chinese food of the finest quality. Our kitchen specializes in Dim Sum, a style of Chinese brunch comprised of delectable dumplings and savory small dishes meant to be leisurely eaten family-style. The menu also features traditional and modern Chinese soul food, sourced locally, taking advantage of Maine’s amazing natural offerings. We invite you to join us in the true spirit of Dim Sum, to have a nourishing meal in the company of friends and family.
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Meredith and I don’t often visit new restaurants in their first week of operation. We typically like to avoid the crowds and let the establishment work out the kinks, but after a few days of hearing and reading so many good things about the newly renovated, re-geared, and renamed Empire Chinese Kitchen, we decided that an early dim sum lunch was just a little too tempting to delay. The new owners of Empire have done an awesome job with the renovation. Long before our meals had arrived, Meredith was happily snapping photos of all the details of the dining room and gushing about the natural light, open space, and relaxed feel of the room. We arrived right as the doors opened and were lucky to get a booth by a window before the room (and waiting list) quickly filled up. We started with a couple of tasty cocktails (the Yellow Fever and the Dragon’s Milk) and ordered a handful of small plate and dim sum dishes which arrived in a slightly staggered fashion, leading to a leisurely tapas-style lunch. First up were the delicious peking duck buns (my personal favorite) and the har gow (one of a few of the gluten-free options on the menu). It’s a standard rule of thumb for me that pretty much anything served in a steamed bun will be awesome, and the savory peking duck didn’t disappoint – I’d highly recommend trying it. We also tried the lobster dumplings and the unique Empire egg roll, made with pastrami and asparagus and served with honey dijon. We thoroughly enjoyed each of the dishes we tried, and the three-count dumplings led to a number of small chopstick sword fighting battles. All in all, I think we’re both glad that we ignored our recently-opened restaurant ban this time around, and can’t wait for a revisit to try the remaining items on the menu. Anyone want to join us?
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The Empire actually had a previous life as a Chinese restaurant back in the first half of the 20th century. (The retro signage on Congress Street suggests as much.) But it’s only been since September that Theresa Chan and Todd Bernard took over and revamped the downtown space and launched Empire Chinese Kitchen. Hemingway might have described it as a clean, well-lighted place; like many neighboring restaurants, its interior is big on windows and wood and cool light fixtures. It’s no dive.
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Additional Photos In just a short time, Empire Chinese has become a go-to destination for excellent authentic Cantonese fare. Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer In the first half of the 1900s, Empire Chop Suey was a fixture on Congress Street in Portland, distinguished by the large red sign. Colorized photo courtesy of Portland Magazine Many art historians believe the restaurant was the setting for the Edward Hopper painting “Chop Suey” , based on the fact that Hopper and his wife summer in Cape Elizabeth from 1927 to ’29.
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4.2.2013Portland’s Empire Dine + Dance closing for renovations, to reopen serving Chinese4.8.2015Empire takes a bow: Central Provisions chef loves the baos, dumplings of Chinese restaurant12.23.2013Portland storefront upgrades good for some businesses, bad for others11.20.2015Food and culture sites find 7 of the best Chinese food places in Maine11.4.2013Popular Portland eatery to close after seven years; owners plan to open new restaurant

Entertainment also is part of the plan, and Bernard is taking over the upstairs to usher music back into the two-story space. Most recently home to Empire Dine and Dance, which closed six months ago, the new Empire started live music shows this week.
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Meredith and I don’t often visit new restaurants in their first week of operation. We typically like to avoid the crowds and let the establishment work out the kinks, but after a few days of hearing and reading so many good things about the newly renovated, re-geared, and renamed Empire Chinese Kitchen, we decided that an early dim sum lunch was just a little too tempting to delay.
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Chinese chowhounds will recognize some dishes, such as wonton noodle soup and egg rolls, but Chan gives them a twist. The Empire eggroll is made with local pastrami, asparagus, cabbage and served with honey dijon dipping sauce ($5).

While Empire Chinese is anything but formal, it gets the combination of classic Cantonese and updated innovation just right. Owners Theresa Chan and Todd Bernard chalk up their almost immediate success to happy serendipity. Despite their backgrounds — Chan grew up in the business, her family opened China Rose and Little Tokyo in Brunswick; Bernard was one of the original founders of Portland’s Space Gallery and a former advertising sales representative at Down East — neither partner was looking to open a business. But through a series of conversations as they commuted by ferry to work on Great Diamond Island, the idea blossomed. Next thing they knew, a lease was signed and they were up to their eyebrows in demolition. The pair, with the help of friends and family, did all the design and renovations. The result is part industrial (exposed I-beam, HV ductwork, and plumbing pipe as ornamentation), part stylish (lots of natural daylight and blond wood, an intimate horseshoe bar with a pagoda-like bar back rising behind it), and part whimsical (rows of potted hanging jade plants dividing booths, an illuminated “disco Buddha” behind the bar). There are corners and crannies for the solo diner or canoodling couples, but large parties with children are equally at home. Call the atmosphere feng shui with funk.

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