The Empire bites back: Pair put dim sum front, center on Portland menu
PORTLAND — Sixty years after Portland's first "deluxe" Chinese restaurant closed, a new empire is rising in its place.
At the corner of Congress Street and Forest Avenue, dim sum, Cantonese cuisine, tea, cocktails and music are the pillars of Empire Chinese Kitchen, which opened Sept. 12.
Picking up where The Empire Restaurant left off when it closed in 1953 are Theresa Chan and Todd Bernard. Portland's newest power duo bring authentic Chinese food and an artistic eye to the growing dining scene in the heart of the arts district.
One of the oldest Chinese staples – dim sum – is hardly new, but many Mainers will be experiencing these morsels for the first time.
"The foods are famously delicious. They are so, so good," said Chan, who hired a dim sum master from San Francisco to make her father's recipes.
Growing up in New York City in a large Cantonese family that was obsessed with food, Chan was immersed in a dim sum dynasty.
"(The small meals) have a lot of meanings. It's Chinese brunch, but it literally means 'touches the heart,'" said Chan, who said she hopes to do just that with her personal take on these Chinese tapas.
"Because the meal is comprised of tasty dumplings and stewed meats and baked goods, and buns and pastries, you order them one at a time in a relaxed manner," said Chan, 27. "It's a way to be with your family and friends."
Starting with a focused menu of a half dozen dim sum offerings, such as pork, spinach and lobster dumplings ($5 to $9), Chan is leaving room to experiment and take local taste into account.
"It will be ever changing. We want to be very open and very receptive to what people would like to see on the menu. Because it's dim sum, it can be one of hundreds of dishes," she said.
Classics like char sui bao will frequently be added to the menu. These barbecue pork buns "are like these little clouds of delight," Chan said. "They are soft and puffy because the buns are steamed and not baked. They are incredibly light and airy."
Other upcoming offerings like Phoenix claws, marinated chicken feet, are "unbelievably delicious," she said.
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).
Bacon fried rice ($12) is made with strips from L&P Bisson and Sons Meat Market in Topsham, eggs and scallions.
"We are making our dim sum from the highest ingredients and using local ingredients. Many things will be made to order," Chan said. "We have a very playful take on everything."
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 at 575 Congress St. started live music shows this week.
"We are bringing it full circle," said Bernard, who is no stranger to Congress Street as a founding member of the nearby SPACE Gallery. "We are taking all that energy from Empire and changing the concept."
The owners gutted the space, formerly a favorite watering hole, and transitioned it into a Zen bistro. Wooden floors, high ceilings and a marble bar that looks out onto the Congress Street bustle give Empire a relaxed calm.
In a nod to history, they erected a sign from the second-story window that suggests the building's past. American realist painter and printmaker Edward Hopper is believed to have immortalized this Chinese restaurant with his "Chop Suey" painting in 1929.
The new owners seem like appropriate stewards of the storied space.
"It was happenstance that we came here," said Chan, who had no plans to continue in the footsteps of her parents, who run Little Tokyo restaurant in Brunswick.
"Because I always grew up in restaurants, I didn't really see how I could make it my own."
Bernard's enthusiasm for the project changed her mind.
"I thought, 'Wow, we could really do something special and give the notion of a Chinese restaurant a facelift and make it fun.'"