NOM NOM NOM Crunchy duck meat tucked into a steamed bun.
Empire Chinese Kitchen reclaims the name and space occupied by one of Portland’s earliest Chinese restaurants, a century after the original opened its doors. So Empire invites us, as we sample its Cantonese cuisine, to engage in the quintessential Chinese art of balancing reverence for tradition with the embrace of the new.
China has three great religions; now that Buddhism has been ruinously co-opted to serve the self-cultivation of the yoga crowd, it is pleasant to be invited to engage with the richer practices of tradition-minded Confucianism, and lost-in-the-now Daoism. The tension between these philosophies has lasted two millennia, and the synthesis of convention and spontaneity is a large part of what is so appealing about Empire Chinese Kitchen.
Empire specializes in dim sum, but in a way that is more Confucian than Doaist. This is not the sort of boisterous hall bustling with steam carts that bring unexpected discoveries to your table. That kind of dim sum dining recalls the magic of a fourth-century day at the orchid pavilion, when poets drank from cups of wine that floated down a stream — and composed poems after drinking each cup that bobbed to their feet. Empire’s dim sum experience is less spontaneous and unpredictable, and more carefully traditional. It is crafted with palpable concern for technique. One does not lose oneself in the moment so much as admire the reverence for custom.
The dim sum are terrific, nonetheless, and it is Portland’s good fortune to have Empire float in our direction and land at our feet. Many dishes arrive stacked in handsome bamboo steamers. The rice-flour dumplings are gorgeously plump, pale, and translucent, with a perfect just-gummy texture. Inside hides springy-sweet shrimp, fatty pork, or spinach with ginger and a bit of sweet corn. The pork dumplings and the shu mai (made with pork and shrimp) are made with a thinner and denser wrapper, packed tight with meat.
Much of Empire’s dim sum offers the attractive spectacle of quivering, glistening fat (exactly the sort of thing that’s Photoshopped out of magazines and scorned by the yoga crowd). The chefs allow the simple pleasures of salt and fat to dominate, accompanied by muted notes of garlic and scallion, spice and sweet. Even the ginger-jalapeño dipping sauce is on the mellow side, resembling a thin, sweet version of traditional soy.
These virtues carry over to other parts of the menu. The duck bun features crunchy, fatty meat folded into a pale white, springy-spongy, steamed bun. The bun’s perfectly neutral flavor left the tang of hoisin and slight bite of scallion unobscured. Another dish featured broad rice noodles with just the right soft texture. Kale and bean sprouts added some crunch and chew, and the sauce hinted at garlic and black bean. A sharper garlic flavor animated a dish of just-charred green beans, which kept a touch of crunch.
Dim sum is traditionally eaten with tea. Empire’s oolong has a nice earthy grassy flavor, with a slightly bitter note. It goes well with the egg tart dessert that has the courage to actually taste like egg. It is unusual and terrific. The same could be said of the Dragon’s Milk cocktail, with its creamy texture and flavors of green tea and basil.